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Giraffe - The Facts

Taxonomy, Evolution and Scientific Classification
























G. camelopardalis

O. johnston

Binomial Name:

Giraffa camelopardalis  

(Linnaeus, 1758)

Okapia johnstoni

(Sclater, 1901)


At about 3m tall, an antelope-like animal which roamed the plains and forests of Asia and Europe between the Eocene and Oligocene epochs (specifically 30 – 50 million years ago) was the forefather of the 2 remaining members of the Giraffidae family; the modern day giraffe and okapi.

In countries ranging from Japan, China and Mongolia, through India and Iran and into Greece and Austria, as well as Africa, more than 10 fossil genera have been discovered telling us that by the Miocene epoch (6-23 million years ago) early deer-like giraffids were yet to develop the long neck synonymous with today’s giraffe.  They were however already tall animals and their heads were adorned with large ossicones (horns made of ossified cartilage, covered in skin or fur), which in later species began to evolve into the more familiar unbranched ossicones of the modern day giraffids.  The end of the Pliocene epoch (2.5-6 million years ago) saw a number of long necked giraffids evolve, but largely unsuccessfully with only 2 species surviving to this day. (For further information on the okapi go to ‘What are the closest relatives of giraffe?).   


The modern day giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), an even toed ungulate (the same as cattle, camels, sheep, goats and even hippopotamus – but not horses), is the world’s tallest animal and largest ruminant (animals that partly digest their food and then regurgitate it to chew as ‘cud’).

But is there just one ‘giraffe species’ or are there many?  It is widely accepted that there are a number of (sub)species of G. camelopardalis though there is increasing evidence to suggest that some of these nine (sub)species may be separate species in their own right.

Extensive and ongoing genetic analysis of giraffe populations, both captive and wild, is providing answers to questions essential for developing giraffe conservation management strategies.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • For a number of years there was discussion between some in the scientific community as to whether the West African and the Kordofan (sub)species of giraffe were in fact the same animal.  DNA analysis can now confirm they are most certainly separate and indeed ongoing studies may well reveal they are actually separate ‘species’. 
  • In another case there was the suggestion that the Rothschild’s giraffe was in fact just a hybrid, but again genetic evidence has confirmed its place as an important (sub)species in its own right. 
  • A recent study of the Angolan giraffe in northern Namibia has suggested there is evidence that two neighbouring populations may well be separate (sub)species.  And meanwhile the same science seems to have resolved a debate which sought to subdivide the South African giraffe into four separate (sub)species, and it is now widely accepted there is but one South African giraffe. 

GCF are at the forefront of working to establish the genetic classification of the remaining wild populations and are working closely with the IUCN SSC ASG International Giraffe Working Group and lab partners to complete this work and to subsequently help establish these management strategies across the African Continent (read about these ongoing GCF projects at ‘Our Projects’).

These are the currently nine recognised (sub)species of giraffe and their distribution - please see 'Giraffe subspecies' for more details on each of these:

  • Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis - Angolan giraffe
  • Giraffa camelopardalis antiquorum - Kordofan giraffe
  • Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis - Nubian giraffe
  • Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa - South African giraffe
  • Giraffa camelopardalis peralta - West African giraffe
  • Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata - Reticulated giraffe
  • Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi - Rothschild's giraffe
  • Giraffa camelopardalis thornicrofti - Thornicroft's giraffe
  • Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi - Masai giraffe

 Giraffe distribution map (c) GCF