The IUCN currently recognises one species (Giraffa camelopardalis) and nine subspecies of giraffe, which is historically based on outdated assessments of their morphological features and geographic ranges. The subspecies are thus divided: Angolan giraffe (G. c. angolensis), Kordofan giraffe (G. c. antiquorum), Masai giraffe (G. c. tippleskirchi), Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis), Reticulated giraffe (G. c. reticulata), Rothschild’s giraffe (G. c. rothschildi), South African giraffe (G. c. giraffa), Thornicroft’s giraffe (G. c. thornicrofti), and West African giraffe (G. c. peralta).
However, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), together with its partner Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F), has performed the first-ever comprehensive DNA sampling and analysis (genomic, nuclear and mitochondrial) of all major natural populations of giraffe throughout their range in Africa. As a result, an update of the traditional taxonomy now exists. This study revealed that there are four distinct species of giraffe, and five subspecies. The four distinct species are Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi), Northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), Reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata) and Southern giraffe (G. giraffa). The Angolan giraffe (G. g. angolensis) and South African giraffe (G. g. giraffa) are the two subspecies of the Southern giraffe. Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis), Kordofan giraffe (G. c. antiquorum) and West African giraffe (G. c. peralta) are the three subspecies of the Northern giraffe. Rothschild’s giraffe is genetically identical to the Nubian giraffe. As the nominate species, Nubian giraffe takes precedence and Rothschild’s giraffe is thus subsumed into it.
Preliminary data suggests that the Thornicroft’s giraffe is genetically similar to the Masai giraffe. However, additional research is necessary to determine whether Thornicroft’s giraffe are genetically identical to Masai giraffe, or should be considered a separate subspecies of Masai giraffe. In all of GCF’s conservation work and publications, based on this research, we use the updated giraffe taxonomy of the four species, while the IUCN still refers to the traditional concept of one species and nine subspecies.
All four giraffe species and their subspecies live in geographically distinct areas throughout Africa. While some of these species have been reported to hybridise in zoos, there is very little evidence that this occurs readily in the wild.
Read more about the four distinct giraffe species.