Giraffes are the tallest terrestrial animals in the world, making them difficult targets for any predator to
subdue. Despite their substantial size, a few predators have been known to attack giraffes in their native
habitats of Africa.
Adult giraffes defend themselves against predators by using their legs to kick and stomp attackers. The hind legs are extremely powerful and can kill a lion in one blow. Calves are most likely to be attacked, but they camouflage themselves by lying in long grass.
In this article, I look at how giraffes defend themselves and some of the predators they need to be aware of.
Luckily for giraffes, adults are well-suited to defend themselves from predator attacks. When threatened,
giraffes utilise their massive legs to stomp at predators or kick them. Giraffes deliver
an especially lethal kick with their hind legs, and several biologists have observed giraffes killing
lions in this way.
Bucking is another defensive behaviour that has been noted in giraffes. Giraffes often employ this behaviour to rid themselves of oxpeckers-birds that sustain themselves off food they obtain from large mammals’ bodies.
While oxpeckers can be beneficial to giraffes, they can also be a detriment as they damage healing wounds and inflict new wounds.
Rival male giraffes showcase one more technique that this species can use to defend themselves, as they
are known to swing their heads and necks at one another during heated battles for females. This
technique, however, has not been observed as a means of defence against predators.
Given that giraffes are almost always found in herds, they receive several benefits from this living
arrangement. As herd size increases, so do the number of eyes watching out for predators. A
large herd also may benefit giraffes in that predators could have difficulty singling out one
individual to attack within the herd.
Finally, an individual giraffe’s probability of being attacked by a predator is thought to decrease as the size of the herd increases. Despite these benefits, a sizable herd also has its drawbacks.
Predators more easily detect large herds, and the individuals within this group have more competition for resources amongst themselves. As it turns out, most herds of giraffes are considered to be small, but the ideal herd size for a giraffe is intermediate in size—around 40 individuals.
Protecting their young
Defence such as kicking and stomping is typically noted in female giraffes attempting to protect
their calves. In scenarios in which a female and calf are ambushed, the giraffes have little hope of
outrunning the predators, given the slower speed of the calf, so the adult female is forced to resort to
kicking and stomping to protect the calf.
Such defence is dangerous for both predators and giraffes. Unfortunately, there has been documentation of calves becoming accidental casualties in instances where mother giraffes frantically kick and stomp while attempting to protect themselves and their young.
After a calf has been born, the mother giraffe promptly licks the calf clean and consumes the foetal
membrane to mask the smell of the calf from hungry predators. For the first few weeks after
a calf has been born, its mother will remain isolated with her young.
Like a fawn, a young giraffe calf will lie down for much of the day and rely on camouflage to avoid predators. A mother giraffe gives her calf space to avoid drawing attention to its presence. A mother giraffe may leave her calf alone for hours as she forages because she trusts that the calf will be sufficiently camouflaged to avoid predation.
While the camouflage of a giraffe calf is effective, it is not foolproof. Calves are still larger than
most animals of the African savannah, so their camouflage can only protect them to a certain degree. Around half of all giraffes will perish within a year of being born.
Lions are the primary predators of giraffes, although giraffes comprise a minimal portion
of a lion’s diet. It is seldom the case that giraffes ever amount to more than 10% of the kills of a lion
population, as the total is usually between 0-4% of total lion kills.
In addition to lions, spotted hyenas and leopards have been known to kill giraffes, but attacks from these
species are very infrequent. Other familiar species of African predators such as the cheetah, painted dogs,
and crocodiles have not been known to attack giraffes. However, the latter would be equipped to take down a giraffe calf if the opportunity arose.
Given their size and tendency to live in herds, giraffes are a difficult target for the few predators that
dare to attack them. Considering giraffe predators, lions are the primary threats to giraffes, though spotted hyenas and leopards will also occasionally attack giraffes.
Giraffes are far from helpless, though, as they can defend themselves with powerful kicks and stomps when running is not an option. In the first year of life, giraffes are the most vulnerable and prone to attacks from predators.
Young giraffes often lie down and rely on camouflage for much of the day until they are large enough to defend themselves. Though predators kill a fair number of giraffes, it seems that predatory attacks have a
minimal impact on the overall population of this species.
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