Giraffe and Giraffe Hunting in South Africa

a herd of giraffe

by Peter Ruddle

Giraffes are known as the docile gentle giants of the savanna. They are the world’s tallest mammal and a mature bull can stand 18 feet (5 metres) high, aptly described by their Zulu name “Indlulamithi” which directly translated means taller than the trees.

It is widely believed that Giraffe derived their name from an Arabic dialect word “zarāfa”, possibly of Somali origin. Giraffe images engraved on a rock were found in the Sahara Desert of north-eastern Niger, and according to archaeologists date back some seven to nine thousand years. 

The first scientific description of the Giraffe was made by the famous Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in 1758 from a specimen recorded in the Sudan region. The species was originally described as a deer, Cervus camelopardalis, and then revised to Giraffa camelopardalis. In Latin the name camelopardalis means “camel (from a Giraffe’s camel like muzzle) marked like a leopard”. 

Its closest living relative is the extremely rare Okapi found in the forests of Central Africa.

Three giraffes in savannah


Giraffe occurred in the savanna regions of the sub-Saharan African countries in West, Central, East and Southern Africa. However, they do not occur in the forests and jungles of Central and West Africa. Strangely, Giraffes do not occur in Northern Mozambique and the Lower Zambezi Valley between Zambia and Zimbabwe. There is strong evidence to suggest that they also did not occur in the Zululand bushveld of northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa where they now thrive after being introduced from the eastern parts of South Africa many years ago. 

In 2016 a study was published with a new taxonomic classification, indicating that there were 4 species, 5 subspecies and 2 ecotypes. This has since been disputed and the IUCN only recognised one species and 9 subspecies of which only 2 can be hunted. 

The non-huntable species are:  

  •         Kordofan Giraffe from south Chad, the Central African Republic, north Cameroon, and north-east Congo.
  •         Masai Giraffe or Kilimanjaro Giraffe from south central Kenya and in Tanzania.
  •         Nubian Giraffe from South Sudan and Ethiopia.
  •         Reticulated or Somali Giraffe from north-east Kenya, southern Ethiopia and Somalia.
  •         Rothschild’s Giraffe from Uganda and Kenya.
  •         Thornicroft’s or Rhodesian Giraffe from the Luangwa Valley in east Zambia.
  •         West African Giraffe from south-west Niger.

The huntable species are:

Angolan Giraffe or Namibian Giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis from northern Namibia, south-west Zambia, Botswana and western Zimbabwe but can only be hunted in Northern Namibia.

South African Giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa, is found in northern South Africa, southern Botswana, southern Zimbabwe and south-west Mozambique.


Giraffes can only be hunted in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe where their numbers continue to increase as opposed to those countries where they cannot be hunted and their numbers are showing a sharp decline.

It is not surprising that where Giraffes have an economic value they are preserved to such an extent that overpopulation now occurs in some areas. Giraffes are not a popularly hunted trophy species as most hunters are unable to house a trophy of this size in their home unless they have high ceilings. In some areas they may also be hunted as management animals in an effort to reduce their numbers and the meat is much sought after by the protein deprived communities, especially in Southern Zimbabwe.  

Free-range Giraffe can be hunted in the Limpopo Basin concessions of Zimbabwe and large private game reserves adjoining the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Since the advent of game ranching their distribution has increased significantly and they are now even found in the semi-arid regions of Namibia and across South Africa.   

The quality of a trophy Giraffe is in the eye of the beholder as there are no categories into which this species can be entered into the various hunting record books. There are some slight natural colour variations, with lighter coloured animals found in the western parts of Southern Africa. Darker coloured specimens are generally found on the eastern side of the continent. A bull’s hide tends to darken with age and they also start producing bad body odour giving them the name of “Stink Bulls”. 

A herd of giraffe


Not surprisingly, a herd of Giraffe is called a “Tower” of Giraffe owing to their height. This is one of the factors that makes Giraffe hunting difficult. With that long neck, excellent eyesight and acute hearing they are able to detect danger from a mile away. Lions and humans are their only enemies and even lions need to be careful during an attempted attack not to receive a fatal blow from a Giraffe kick.

In some areas the Giraffe tend to be inquisitive allowing the hunting party to approach within shooting range. In other areas all you may hear is their thunderous hooves on the ground as they run away as if in slow motion. Do not be fooled, with such a long stride and a speed of up to 35 mph (56 km/h), Giraffes can easily put some substantial distance between themselves and the hunting party.

A Giraffes diet consists mainly of thorn tree (formerly known as Acacias) leaves. They have a long 18 inch (45 cm) tongue which they use to wrap around a small branch and rip a mouthful of leaves off the tree. They eat up to 75 pounds (45 kg) of food a day. This slow feeding process means that they pretty much need to feed all day long so to find a Giraffe to hunt you need to be in the right habitat.

Giraffes are able to survive off of the moisture they acquire from the intake of leaves but they do enjoy a good long drink, so good habitat and water would be the obvious place to look for a Giraffe.


Spot and stalk is the most common way of hunting a Giraffe. This can either be done from a vehicle or high ground. The most common hunting method is using a vehicle as a means to rapidly cover ground in order to find your quarry. Once sighted, you need to plan your approach making use of as much cover or broken ground as possible.

Similarly, walk and stalk is another option as Giraffe with their huge hooves leave a very distinct track to follow. This may even be required during a spot and stalk hunt as you try close in on the animal. Being unsighted for a while you may lose their location or they may startle and move off to safety. Tracking will help you find in which direction the animals have moved.

With their height they have the advantage but it also means in areas with smaller trees they will be easily visible when tracking.

Rifle choice and ammunition are critical on a Giraffe hunt. They have an incredibly thick skin, about an inch (2.5 cm) thick and reckoned to be the toughest of all African animal skins. If you intend taking a heart shot you not only need to contend with this thick hide but some massive bone structure as well. It is therefore recommended to use the largest calibre rifle available with a solid round for good bullet penetration. If using a lighter calibre you might want to consider a brain shot which is very small and lies between the horns and eyes or what is called a spine shot. In this instance talking a spine shot means shooting the animal where the neck and head join in the first of the 7 vertebrae found in that elongated neck. 

Giraffe live in small herds without strong social ties2. BOW HUNTING 

Bow hunting a Giraffe can be incredibly challenging. As with rifle hunting you have the thick hide and massive bones structure to contend with. Your best shot is a quartering away shot when offered to avoid the massive rib cage and shoulder blades.

This is more easily accomplished when hunting from a blind over water, mineral and food. But if you are looking for something really challenging it’s a still hunt. This is best conducted in a ghillie suit and is all about stealthily sneaking into the right position to take a shot with your bow. You need to position yourself in the direction in which the Giraffe is feeding without being detected. Keep your movement down to a minimum and stay downwind of the animal. Generally Giraffe feed into the wind as the trees release tannin to reduce overutilisation by a browsing animal. This tannin release defence mechanism also becomes an airborne scent which activates other trees in the vicinity to start releasing tannin themselves, hence the Giraffe feeding strategy to always feed into the wind.   

Ghillie suits are very effective and an unsuspecting Giraffe can walk right by within kicking distance so you need to hold your nerve and then slip an arrow in that ginormous chest cavity. Giraffe’s have a massive heart weighing 25 pounds (11 kg) and measuring about 2 foot (60 cm) long. Obviously this tall animal requires a super-sized pump to create enough blood pressure for the blood to reach the brain.


Giraffes live in unstable herds with no strong social ties. Mothers will defend their offspring and they will form nursery herds where one mother keeps an eye on a number of youngsters.

Males weigh up to 2,750 pounds (1,250 kg) and are significantly bigger than the females. A Giraffe bull will fight for dominance, using their long necks in combat. This is known as “necking”. During these fights the bulls will stand side by side, often leaning on one another to unbalance the opponent while swinging their heads landing some heavy body blows with their ossicones (bone like horns). Sometimes these sparring bouts last from 20-30 minutes and may even end with a broken jaws, necks and death.       

Although obtaining most of the moisture from the leaves they eat, Giraffes do enjoy a long thirst quenching drink. Strangely enough a Giraffe’s neck is too short to reach the water and as a result they need to awkwardly spread their front legs in order to wet their lips. This makes them very vulnerable to an attacking Lion during this procedure.

Strangely enough, a Giraffe's neck is too short

They will drink for a while, then raise and shake their heads. This is in response to the complicated high pressure blood circulatory system required for the blood to reach the brain and to prevent it from fainting when raising its head too fast.

Giraffes may rest with their legs folded under them and their necks held vertically constantly on the lookout for danger. This type of behaviour is not often seen in areas with high Lion populations as Giraffe’s are once again very vulnerable to attack while in this position. It takes some time and effort for a Giraffe to stand up.

Giraffes do sleep. When this occurs the animal curls its long neck back and rests its head on its rump. On average a Giraffe only gets about 30 minutes sleep a day, the shortest sleep of any animal in the entire animal kingdom.    

You may hardly ever hear a Giraffe give off a warning snort which they occasionally do. Most of the time their communication is of such low frequency that is inaudible to the human ear.       

If you ever have time to observe one of these creatures ruminating, it can be quite fascinating watching the esophageal muscles regurgitate and swallow their food during this food transfer process.


Giraffes should only be hunted during the winter season as skinning a Giraffe is one serious mission. Skinning a Giraffe is the most cumbersome and time consuming process which requires ropes, winches and high lift jacks. Everything is so heavy and difficult to move.

The skin needs to be removed and salted as quickly as possible to prevent hair slip and the meat retains the body heat for some time so needs to be refrigerated as soon as possible to prevent it from spoiling. This is why hunting Giraffes on a hot summer’s day is not recommended as you may lose your trophy.


Although Giraffes have two bone-like structures known as ossicones, that resemble horns, there is no measuring system for any record entries into the record book. These protrusions on the top of the skull are covered in hair and in the case of an adult male are bald on top from necking with other males.

Trophy quality is determined by age and sex and is more about colour than anything else. Each animal can be individually identified by their coat pattern, like a human fingerprint. 

Everybody likes to look at giraffe


Giraffes are generally a “nice to have” animal on a game farm. They make for a great tourist attraction but come with some management issues when the numbers need to be reduced. Some of the issues that often require management intervention are over utilisation of available browse, skewed sex ratios when there are too many bulls on the property and bulls fighting and destroying fences.  

Generally only young adult animals are captured for sale to other game ranchers. Fully grown males cannot be transported as they make the horse-box trailers used in the process too top heavy. Moving Giraffes from one area to another area can be quite a process with low lying electricity cables and overhead bridges.

Giraffes are released directly onto the veld (pasture) and mate through the year, producing a 6 foot (1, 82 m) calf after a 15 month gestation period. The mother will break away from the herd and give birth while standing up.


Giraffes can be really tough on fences. They are able to jump 1.5 m (5 foot) but generally just run or stumble/fall through a fence and in some cases even a high fence. Bulls from different adjoining properties will often fight through and across boundary fences causing great damage to the fence. This often ends up becoming a management problem when other valuable animals might be able to escape though these damaged portions of the fence.


Habitat destruction by an increasing human footprint is unfortunately a reality throughout the world and the biggest challenge facing our wildlife populations. However, to date the biggest problem faced by Giraffe today in many African countries is poaching.

In many of these countries Giraffes are specially protected and may not be hunted but this has not reduced the number of animals being illegally poached. They are mostly killed for their meat. However carved leg bones and Giraffe hair bracelets also find their way into the black market. 


  •         When skinning a Giraffe be prepared with plenty of equipment and knives. Knives will need sharpening on a regular basis. Fat oils from the skin contaminating these knives makes the sharpening process even more difficult.
  •         Once skinned and cleaned the skin needs to be salted as soon as possible to prevent hair slip. The inside of the skin needs to be sliced as deep as possible in a series of criss cross sections to allow for the salt to penetrate the hide.
  •         What looks like the leg bones which are actually modified toe bones (metatarsals) make fantastic knife handles or carved into various designs.


The meat is edible but can be tough if not aged. Apart from being used for biltong (jerky), fillers for sausages and salami. Generally the meat is sold, used for Lion bait or given to the community if hunted in a community area.  

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