Nestled in the heart of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, the Thornicroft’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis thornicrofti) stands tall as a symbol of the region’s rich biodiversity. This iconic species is endemic to South Luangwa, making it an exclusive resident of this unique landscape. In this blog, we delve into the aspects of how Thornicroft’s giraffe became an iconic and unique presence in South Luangwa, uncovering the characteristics that define this subspecies.

The Thornicroft’s Giraffe Legacy: A Personal Connection

Harry Scott Thornicroft (on the right) | Image Credit:  Wikipedia

Achimvu (seated with her grandsons Harry and Scott) | Image Credit: Ntanda Ventures Zambia’s Facebook Page                                                                                       

Named after Henry “Harry” Scott Thornicroft, a Native Commissioner in Petauke, North-Western Rhodesia (now Zambia), and later a Justice of the Peace in Fort Jameson (now Chipata), the Thornicroft’s giraffe carries a rich legacy deeply intertwined with Zambia’s history. Harry Thornicroft, affectionately nicknamed “Dongolosi,” dedicated 17 years around 1907 to the North-Western Rhodesia region.

A man with a deep connection to the land and its people, Thornicroft married Achimvu, and together they had 11 children.The legacy lives on through a specimen that Harry Thornicroft personally shot and sent to the Natural History Museum in London, where it found a place of honor. This act, rooted in a keen interest in the local wildlife, contributed to the recognition and subsequent protection of this distinctive subspecies

Distinctive Features: Spotting the Thornicroft Giraffe

You can easily identify the Thornicroft Giraffe by its unique pattern and size. Notably, this subspecies lacks a patterned hide below its knees, setting it apart from other giraffe species. In terms of size, Thornicroft’s giraffe is slightly smaller than its counterparts in other regions of Africa.

All giraffes share tufted horns, with males developing bolder horn structures over time due to fighting. A bull’s brown spots also undergo a transformation, darkening with age and becoming much more prominent after they are around 11 years old.

Social Dynamics and Behavior

Image credit: JP Bouchard

Thornicroft’s giraffes exhibit intriguing social dynamics, typically found in groups that range in size and composition. Sex-segregated groups are common, but mixed-sex groups of adult females and young males also form. Young males engage in playful fights, a behavior they gradually abandon as they age. Males, known for their solitary tendencies, may occasionally associate in pairs or with female groups. Males utilize their necks as weapons in combat, a behavior known as “necking,” employed to establish dominance and secure mating opportunities. Giraffes are not territorial but have home ranges influenced by factors such as rainfall and proximity to human settlements.

“The Thornicroft’s giraffe is mostly found along the riverline; it’s very rare to see them going into the hills.”

Philemon , guide at Shenton Safaris

Dietary Preferences and Habits

Image credit: Edward Selfe

As herbivores, Thornicroft’s giraffes are exclusively browsers, primarily feeding on leaves, tree bark, and shoots of trees and shrubs. Their diet shifts with the seasons, transitioning from deciduous plants in the wet season to evergreen and semi-evergreen species in the dry season. Seeking out acacia species is a common behavior during browsing. Giraffes have a distinctive impact on their environment, affecting tree growth patterns and serving as a natural warning system for nearby animals when predators are spotted.

“A very strange behavior I’ve observed over the years with the Thornicroft’s giraffe is that they love to rub themselves against rain trees, especially the smaller ones. The tree releases chemicals when disturbed, aiding these giraffes in fighting off parasites and preventing their spread.”

Patrick, Senior guide at Shenton Safaris

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Thornicroft’s giraffes are polygynous, with males mating with multiple females throughout the year. Males engage in combats to establish dominance, ensuring mating rights with receptive females. The gestation period lasts 13-15 months, yielding single calves, with twins being a rare occurrence. Newborn calves can walk within an hour and run within 24 hours after birth. Reproductive maturity is reached around six years of age, with females producing offspring approximately every 677 days.

Conservation Challenges and Threats

The IUCN Red List still classifies Thornicroft’s giraffes as ‘Vulnerable,’ reflecting their historical low numbers. Approximately 600 individuals are estimated to reside in a limited geographical area. Conservation efforts spearheaded by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and Conservation South Luangwa (CSL) have played a pivotal role in stabilizing the population over the last three decades.

The primary threats facing Thornicroft’s giraffes include poaching, human population growth, habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation. Due to their restricted distribution, factors like water pollution, climate change, and the diversion of water for agriculture or mining pose significant risks. Epidemic diseases could potentially devastate the entire subspecies.

In conclusion, the Thornicroft’s giraffe stands as a testament to Zambia’s unique biodiversity, underscoring the importance of ongoing conservation efforts in preserving this iconic subspecies for future generations.

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About Megan Woolley

Megan Woolley has written 38 post in this blog.