Over the last few weeks we have seen a lot of giraffes congregating together, in a variety of herd make-ups. We know there is no strict or long lasting affiliation between giraffes that are not related, the only real bond is between a mother and her most recent calf.
Males tend to roam freely, on the search for females that are in oestrus. Females spend more time with other females, especially when there are young involved. However these herds also often split up and move through different areas where the chances of bumping into other giraffes is high and they will then spend time with that herd temporarily before moving on again.
However there is a slightly longer term aggregation of giraffe that we have been seeing here quite a bit of late; when they form creches for the calves. This system allows mothers to roam off and feed or drink while another female keeps watch over the young.
Giraffe breeding occurs throughout the year, although most conceptions occur during the rains. After a long 15 month gestation the female isolates herself away in order to give birth. The 100kg infant is incredibly vulnerable; the mother nudges it upon birth, encouraging it to get up, and within the first hour it is able to walk. Not yet sure-footed, it is limiting to the mother’s movements as she needs to search for vital nutrition in order to produce milk. The newborn is therefore sometimes left lying up in long grass over the course of the first week. Isolated from the mother for a few hours at a time it depends on camouflage for its survival. This allows the mother to roam up to 3 kilometres from the newborn.
Being a large, browsing ruminant, a lactating female giraffe’s diets consists of a few different species during the winter. Leaves from the Buffalo thorn, Jackalberry, Weeping Boer-bean and any Acacia trees that still have leaves form the bulk of their diet in this part of the world, along with a selection of flowers from Knobthorns and Cassias. Basically eating what ever is available and high in protein. Osteophagia – the chewing of bones to supplement calcium and phosphorus – is common during the winter months.
As the calf is more comfortable on its feet and capable of avoiding danger it begins to move around more. However having the calf constantly nearby remains restrictive on the mother’s search for food. With the partial synchronisation of giraffe births, mothers with similar aged young are likely to associate. The young giraffes enjoy the company of other young giraffes; they perform a nosing ceremony where they rub noses up against each other and then jump apart. All in an effort to cement bonds between them. This tendency of calves clustering together in creches anchors mothers in the same general area. Now with the added security or “baby sitter” mothers can roam further afield to obtain the nutritional requirements. Never gone for too long, the mother always return before dark to nurse her young and spend the night with it.
After about 4 months the calves then accompany the maternal herd and stick with their mothers; a very strong bond which lasts up until a sibling is born. The older calf now at an age just under 2, moves out and roams around as other giraffes do, with no strict bonds to any others.
The number of creches we have been viewing close to the Londolozi camps over the last few months has been spectacular, and thankfully for them, most of the lion activity – their main threat – has been concentrated north of the river and in the southern parts of the reserve. For their sake, let’s hope this situation continues for the immediate future..