Northern Giraffe: Giraffa camelopardalis
Masai Giraffe: Giraffa tippelskirchi
Reticulated Giraffe: Giraffa reticulata
Southern Giraffe: Giraffa giraffa

Giraffe are the world’s tallest mammals. Their unique anatomy and fascinating ecology make them striking figures on Africa’s open landscapes. Despite their charismatic status, we know surprisingly little about their patterns of movement and habitat use. In addition, many populations are declining, with giraffe now considered ‘vulnerable’ to extinction. The global population of giraffe is estimated to be approximately 111,000 individuals, a figure which represents a decrease of nearly 30% since the 1980’s. Smithsonian scientists are collaborating with an internationl network of researchers, including scientists from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, San Diego Zoo Global, and the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre to better understand the factors necessary for the conservation of critical giraffe populations across Africa.


Southern and central Africa map

Height: 5.5 m (18 ft)

Weight: 1360 kg (3,000 lbs)

No two giraffe have the same spot patterns. Like human fingerprints, giraffe spots are unique to each individual, allowing researchers to identify and monitor individuals from year to year.

Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Vulnerable status


Giraffe are well known for their long legs and necks, long purple tongues, and unique coat pattern. Once found in large numbers across over 25 different African countries, many populations of giraffe have faced steep declines. Reticulated giraffe of northern Kenya, for example, have declined by as much as 50-80% since the mid-1990s. The causes of these population declines across Africa are multifold, with habitat loss and fragmentation, disease, competition with livestock, and the bushmeat trade all being primary drivers – however, all are linked to human population growth. To understand how these factors impact giraffe movement and survival, specialized tracking technologies are necessary to inform conservation of this unique species.

Although a distinguishing feature of giraffe, their characteristically long neck has made previous tracking studies difficult. Collars situated at the top of the neck tend to slide down and interfere with normal chewing and breathing processes, while collars situated at the bottom of the neck tend to slip off when the individual leans down to drink water. As a result, very little is known about the movement patterns of giraffe globally, making effective conservation challenging.

Giraffe movements animation

In January 2017, Giraffe Conservation Foundation collaborated with Savannah Tracking Ltd, a GPS collar manufacturer based in Kenya, to design a prototype device to fit on the ossicone, or hornlike protrusion, of the giraffe. These solar powered tracking devices have worked well to date and are providing detailed information on the movements of individual giraffe. Over 180 units have been used to track all four (4) species of giraffe in eight (8) different countries. These giraffe are tracked as part of the TwigaTracker Initiative, an ambitious collaborative effort to understand giraffe spatial ecology across Africa.

Data from these ossicone-mounted tracking units are providing the necessary fine-scale information to better understand individual movement patterns, offering new information on the space use of giraffe across diverse habitats, and providing policy makers with the required information to make informed decisions about conserving populations into the future.

Two people taking photos of a giraffe from a safari jeep

Meet the Team

Ecologist Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Conservation Ecology Center Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

Peter Leimgruber

Center Head, Conservation Ecology Center

Conservation Ecology Center Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

Michael Butler Brown, Ph.D.

Conservation Ecologist

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute Conservation Ecology Center Giraffe Conservation Foundation


Scholarly Articles

Brown, M.B., Bolger, D.T. 2020. Male-biased partial migration in a giraffe population. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

D’haen, M., Fennessy, J., Stabach, J.A., Brandlova’, K. 2019. Population structure and spatial ecology of Kordofan giraffe in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Ecology and Evolution. 9(19):11395-11405.

O’connor, D., Stacy-Dawes, J., Muneza, A., Fennessy, J., Gobush, K., Chase, M.J., Brown, M.B., Bracis, C., Elkan, P., Zaberirou, A., Rabeil, T., Rubenstien, D., Becker, M.S., Philips, S., Stabach, J.A., Leimgruber, P., Glikman, J.A., Ruppert, K., Masiane, S., Mueller, T. 2019. Updated geographic range maps for giraffe, Giraffa spp., throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and implications of changing distributions for conservation. Mammal Review. 49 (4): 285-299.


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