One morning while driving along a road in the northern parts of the reserve we encountered something that was particularly unusual. At first glance it seemed like a normal giraffe sighting with a fair few individuals in one area but as we approached it turned out to be something both myself and tracker Richard had never seen before.
Let’s rewind the clock by about a week in order to unpack what we were seeing. A large male giraffe was found dead in this exact spot and was being fed on by the Nkuhuma pride. Unsure of whether the pride had killed the giraffe or if it had died naturally or as a result of a battle with another male. If the lions had brought it down that would have been a tremendous battle to witness, but this isn’t the point of this blog. Eventually, there wasn’t much meat left so the lions moved off allowing other scavengers to completely finish off whatever remains there were, leaving nothing but a bit of skin and bones within hours.
Now back to our sighting that morning. There was a group of about ten or so giraffes around the area where the giraffe had died, all with their heads down moving around within meters of the remains of the carcass. Giraffes will often chew on or grind bones between their teeth in an attempt to supplement mineral deficiencies within their diets such as calcium and phosphorus. Normally these are much older, smaller and dried out bones and unlikely to come from another giraffe.
What we were seeing was different. These giraffes were not looking for bones to chew. These giraffes looked a little uneasy and slightly distressed. Without opening a serious can of worms as we could go down a long rabbit hole here on this topic. There is more and more research showing that a number of animals including but not limited to whales, killer whales, chimpanzees, and elephants show signs of grieving, with new discoveries, apparently, so do giraffes. Everything within mammals’ lives is driven by hormones, and so are emotions. Without trying to anthropomorphise these wild animals too far, it could make sense that they would also feel some form of emotion around the loss of another one of their kind. Below is a video of the numerous giraffe around the exact spot in which the giraffe had died.
It was incredibly interesting behaviour from the giraffe. Because of our cognitive abilities, we couldn’t help but assume that they were paying tribute to the fallen giraffe. We don’t know this for sure though. I have heard of elephants acknowledging bones of passed elephants, but I personally have never seen this before in giraffes, it was quite something. We sat watching the giraffe for nearly half an hour as they all seemed so concerned about the bones below. Every one of them at some point lowered their head to the ground to sniff around, and most did this multiple times. It almost seemed as if they were trying to figure out what had happened to the dead giraffe. A few of the other rangers have seen similar behaviours shown by a mother giraffe when losing her young calf.
In these instances the mother was found standing next to her calf that had died naturally, she would often nudge it with her foot, or bend over and attempt to wake it up with her head, occasionally licking the little one. Almost appearing distressed, the rangers would hear her give off a loud deep exhalation, which sounded similar to the giraffe’s alarm call. A clan of hyenas then began to feed on the dead giraffe and as soon as the mother noticed she came charging back in and chased the hyenas away.
Over the course of the next three days, the mother was seen in the same area walking around aimlessly. Normally giraffes are always seen feeding or ruminating, this mother was doing neither and possibly could have been interpreted as a giraffe’s form of grieving or processing the death of her calf. Eventually, she moved off, but seeing these giraffes so fixated on the bones of one of their own was something new and quite spectacular for me. It gave me a new appreciation for giraffes and got me thinking that maybe they do in their own way, somehow acknowledge their dead.