IN THE AFRICAN savanna, the learning curve for survival is steep and unforgiving. The strong will survive, and the rest may become meals for hungry predators. The birth of a giraffe brings this reality into view.
Giraffe mums, or cows, are pregnant for about 15 months. This long gestation period is necessary to allow the calves to become highly developed in the safety of their mother’s womb. Most newborn calves weigh in at around 220 pounds and stand over six feet tall.
Once the calf is born and falls to the ground, it can’t waste any time standing up. Calves normally stand within 30 minutes of birth. In the video above, you’ll see the first moments of a giraffe’s life. While the struggle can be adorable, like watching a human child take their first stumbles, for a giraffe these moments can be the difference between life and death.
Born to Run
All animals can be placed on a spectrum of helpless to relatively self-sufficient at birth. The former, or altricial group, includes animals that cannot locomote and require intense care, like humans. Precocial animals, however—like giraffes—almost literally hit the ground running.
“The nervous system is ready at birth, like it would be of a one year old [human] child ready to walk,” he says. The corticospinal tract, he adds, is born ready to command the muscles, unlike in the case of a human infant.
In fact, the average newborn giraffe starts walking over 10,000 times faster than the typical human. Although this comparison is a bit of a stretch, considering the vast differences, it’s also illustrative. One reason humans take so long to walk is because they are born with relatively large heads—storing our powerful brains. In the case of humans, and other primates, that’s where much of the developmental energy is concentrated.
But for giraffes, and other hooved animals that serve as prey to many predators, the energy is concentrated in developing muscles. It’s more important for them to be quick than smart, so to speak.
And for good reason. Death rates for newborn giraffes can be 50 percent of more in areas with high predator densities, says Stephanie Fennessy, co-Founder of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
Lions and hyenas are among the most dangerous predators for young giraffes. In the event of an attack, the mother will stand over her offspring and kick her legs at the attacking party. Giraffe moms are experts at hiding their calves, but they do have food and water requirements that keep them away from their offspring for many hours during the day. During parental absence, a calf is vulnerable to attack.
With this high rate of mortality paired with a 15-month pregnancy, one might even wonder how such a situation is evolutionarily favourable. “The clumsy initial steps, and the [baby’s] movements over the first few days, would seem to be signals that can attract predators,” says Fred Bercovitch, executive director of a group called Save the Giraffes. Indeed: Why don't giraffe calves remain more hidden?
Bercovitch explains that it’s likely because the calves have to follow their mothers shortly after birth to find nutritious foods. Better to trail mom—albeit awkwardly—than remain behind.
Besides predators, giraffes also face the additional danger of being poached for their heads, which serve as trophies, as well as their tails, which serve as a status symbol in some communities. The giraffe population is declining as their habitats are fragmenting, diseases spread, and poaching persists; As of 2016 giraffes are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Human threats, unfortunately, are not ones these animals can outrun.