Giraffes inhabit the African savanna, a habitat that stretches across the continent's midsection on both sides of the equator. Savannas are biologically diverse and populated by an astonishing community of animal life that walks, crawls and flies.
Grazers and Browsers
Savannas are grasslands punctuated with small groups of scrub and small trees. They support many plant eaters. These divide into two groups: grazers (those who eat grass) and browsers (those who eat the leaves of trees and bushes). Among the grazers are the zebra, Cape buffalo and all of the many species of antelope. Loftiest among the browsers is the giraffe, followed by the gerenuk, which sometimes is called the "giraffe gazelle" because of its long, elegant neck. Elephants eat grass and leaves, along with tree bark.
All of these plant eaters are food for many carnivores, the eaters of meat. Lions, cheetahs and wild dogs prowl in the tall grasses or sleep in the shade of the trees, while leopards prowl the thick patches of brush, stalk warthogs and lounge in the treetops. Hyenas hunt anything alive and steal kills from the big cats when they can, but eat carrion when they can't. Tassel-eared caracals leap high out of the grass to take birds on the wing. It's a small waterhole on the savanna that doesn't have its resident Nile crocodile, and large concentrations of them render river crossings dangerous.
Baboons travel in large troops across the savanna, foraging for roots and shoots, lizards and insects, but they are never far from the trees for very long because the leopard waits for the unwary. Black-faced vervet monkeys dash from one grove of trees to the next.
Large birds walk the savanna, including the snake-eating Secretary bird and the kori bustard; they can fly if they must, but the kori bustard is the heaviest bird that still can take to the air. Near waterholes, marabou storks, known as undertaker birds, pace gravely, naked heads sunk into their black body feathers, looking for small animals to catch. Vultures hang their wings out to dry on the tops of the acacia trees in the early mornings before they ride the thermals in search of the dead and dying. Weaver birds adorn the same acacias with masses of dome-shaped individual nests clustered like inner-city tenements. The oxpecker, a small bird that eats insects, maintains a symbiotic relationship with the giraffe, exchanging a concentrated food supply by picking ticks from its hide for relieving it of the parasites and warning it of approaching danger.
The savanna grass and trees provide hiding places and shade for reptiles, including the rock python, several species of cobra and the slender, whip-like black mamba, named not for the color of its scales but that of the inside of its fanged mouth. Large lizards, such as the Nile monitor, climb trees but are found more often close to water.
In Swahili, "wadudu" (the bug people) encompasses all forms of insect life from the ever-swarming and biting flies to the termites who create their own ecosystem within their huge mounds. The sacred scarab of Egypt is the hard-working dung beetle of the savanna who recycles huge heaps of grass-smothering elephant dung by rolling it into balls many times his own weight and pushing it far away to melt into and fertilize the soil. Even tiny ants don't hesitate to attack even the hungry giraffe who disturbs their nest branch with his long blue tongue.
- San Diego Zoo: Secretary Bird
- National Zoo: Kori Bustard
- Seaworld.org: Maribou Stork
- Association of Zoos and Aquariums: Kori Bustard
- African Wildlife Foundation: Gerenuk
- WeaveResearch Unit: Weavers of the World
- Oregon Zoo: Nile Monitor Lizard
- It's Nature.org: African Dung Beetle
- PBS Nature: Intimate Enemies
- Anup Shah/Digital Vision/Getty Images