Chapter 19 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

The Camelopard.

There is perhaps no animal living so graceful in form, more beautiful in colour, and more stately and majestic in appearance than the camelopard, now generally known by the French appellation of giraffe. Measuring eighteen feet from the hoof of the fore leg to the crest of its crown, it stands, as an American would express it, “The tallest animal in creation.” There is but a single species of the giraffe, and from the elegance and stateliness of its shape, the pleasing variety and arrangement of its colours, and the mildness of its disposition, its first appearance in Europe excited considerable interest.

Although this animal was well known to the ancient Romans, and indeed, played no inconsiderable part in the gorgeous exhibitions of that luxurious people, yet, with the ultimate overthrow of the Roman Empire, the camelopard finally disappeared from Europe, and for several centuries remained a perfect stranger to the civilised world.

It is not until towards the close of the fifteenth century, that we again hear of the giraffe’s appearance,—when it is related that Lorenzo de Medici exhibited one at Florence.

The first of these animals seen in England was a gift from the Pasha of Egypt to George the Fourth. It arrived in 1828, and died during the following year.

On the 24th of May, 1836, four giraffes were exhibited in the Zoological gardens at Regent’s Park. They were brought from the south-west of Kordofan, and were transported to London at an expense of 2386 pounds three shillings and one penny.

From a casual glance at the giraffe, its fore legs would appear nearly twice as long as the hind ones, but such is not the case. This difference of appearance is caused by the great depth of shoulder, compared with the hips. In proportion to the rest of its body, the camelopard has rather a small head, upheld by a neck nearly six feet in length, gently tapering towards the crown. The animal’s height, reckoning from the top of the head to the hoofs of the fore feet, is about equally divided between neck, shoulders, and legs. Measured from the summit of the hips to the hoofs of the hind feet, it rarely exceeds six and a half, or seven feet.

The head of the giraffe is furnished with a pair of excrescences, usually called horns, although very unlike the horn of any other animal. They are of a porous bony texture covered with short, coarse bristles. Naturalists have, as yet, failed to determine for what purpose these osseous processes are provided. They cannot be either for offence or defence, since they are too easily displaced to afford any resistance in the case of a collision.

The eyes of the camelopard are worthy of all praise. They are of large size, even softer and more gentle than those of the far-famed gazelle, and so placed that it can see in almost every direction without turning its head.

All its senses are very acute; and being an animal of timid habit, it can only be approached by man when mounted upon a fleet horse.

The camelopard feeds on the leaves and blossoms of an umbrella-shaped tree,—a species of mimosa, called mokhala by the native Africans, and cameel-doorn (Camelthorn) by the Dutch settlers of the Cape.

As a grasper and feeler, the tongue of the giraffe is used, as the trunk of the elephants; and its great height enables it to gather the leaves of the mokhala far beyond the reach of the latter.

The camelopard’s skin is exceedingly thick,—often as much as an inch and a half—and so difficult of penetration, that frequently, twenty or thirty bullets are required to bring the creature to the ground. These wounds it receives and suffers in silence; for the giraffe is dumb.

Unlike that of most other animals, its hairy coat becomes darker with age.

The colour of the female is somewhat lighter than the male, and she is also of much inferior stature.

The camelopard can only defend itself by kicking; and it uses its heels in this way more effectively than any other creature,—the horse not excepted. The prominence of its eyes enables it to see behind, when directing its heels against an enemy, and so secures its taking a certain aim; while the blow it can give will crush in the skull of a man, or leave him with a couple of broken ribs. If unmolested, it is among the most innocent of animals.

A creature so strangely shaped, and possessing so much speed and strength, was certainly designed by the Creator for some other use than browsing upon the leaves of mimosa-trees; but that use, man has not yet discovered.