The Tallest, Largest, Fastest and Strongest
Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis): Tallest Land Animal
Giraffe are the world's tallest mammals, standing around 5-6m high and weighing in at around 1600kg (males) and 830kg (females). There are nine subspecies of giraffe, three of which are found in Kenya: the Maasai Giraffe, the Rothschild's Giraffe and the Reticulated Giraffe, which are easily differentiated by coat pattern and territory. The name giraffe is thought to derive in its earliest form from the Arabic word zarafa, meaning "fast-walker" and, appropriately enough, giraffe can run as fast as 56kph over short distances and 16kph over longer distances.
Because of their great height, giraffe have a fascinating circulatory system. Their huge hearts, which can weigh more than 11kg and measure around 61cm long, generate almost double the blood pressure required in a human in order to maintain blood flow to the brain. In order to prevent them from passing out when they lower their heads to drink, they even have their very own 'hydraulic system' in place; a network of veins and, inside the jugular veins, valves, which restrict blood from flowing back into the head when it is lowered. To prevent the converse from happening in the lower legs, giraffes also have their very own 'DVT stockings' built in; their lower legs are thick and tight in order to prevent too much blood from flowing into them.
Giraffe will often be found in social groups, or aggregations, known as a "journey", but they actually do not form strong social bonds and the members of these groups will often change from hour to hour. They have a long lifespan, compared with other ruminants, of up to 25 years in the wild. With size, good eyesight and a very powerful kick on their side, they are also not often subject to predation. However, a good-sized pride of lions can take down a giraffe and, in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, regularly do. Nile crocodiles also present a significant threat to giraffe, as they can seize them when they bend down to drink and are at their most vulnerable.
Giraffe inhabit savanna, grasslands and open woodlands, where their diet of twigs of trees like Acacia, Commiphora and Terminalia, as well as shrubs, grass and fruit, are easily accessible. A giraffe can consume up to 34kg of foliage per day, something for the vegetarians to ponder on...
African Elephant (Loxodonta Africana): Largest Land Animal
African elephants are the largest land animals in the world and, like hyaenas, their society is matriarchal, with groups split into family units containing around 10 females (cows) and calves, led by one matriarch. Separate family units frequently bond with other groups, forming larger kinship groups. Males (bulls) form a more solitary existence, either roaming alone or joining a loose bachelor group, leaving the herd after puberty and only returning to it to seek out females in estrus. In African elephants, both males and females have tusks, which have a dual purpose: prying bark off trees and digging for roots, and in social encounters as an instrument of display or as a weapon. The trunk, which contains around 15,000 muscles, combines both nose and upper lip and transforms them into a single powerful organ that is able to touch, grasp and smell, similar in some ways to a thumb and forefinger in humans. It is sufficiently powerful to uproot a tree but at the same time gentle and sensitive enough to pick up a single berry from the ground without crushing it, and long enough to reach the delicious marula fruit and other foliage high up in the trees. To drink, the trunk is used to suck up water and squirt it into the elephant's mouth. Elephants also use their trunks for greeting, caressing, threatening, and throwing dust over the body.
These amazing, social creatures are amongst the world's most intelligent species, with a sizeable and complex neocortex (the part of the brain used for higher functions such as the generation of motor commands, sensory perception, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language) – a trait shared by humans, apes and several of the dolphin species. This may go some way to explaining the broad spectrum of behaviours they exhibit, including grief, learning, mimicry, play, compassion, self-awareness, use of tools and, most famously, memory. Their brains are the largest of all land animals and similar in complexity and structure to those of humans. The current elephant population in Kenya stands at around 35,000. In the 1960s there were an estimated 167,000 individuals.
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus): Fastest Land Animal
The best-known fact about the cheetah is that it can run faster than any other land animal; in short bursts it can reach speeds as fast as 120kph over distances up to 500 metres. It can also accelerate from 0-100kph in just three seconds. People pay good money for cars that will do that. Lesser-known facts about the cheetah include that it is one of the few felids with semi-retractable claws and that its name derives from the Sanskrit word citrakāyaḥ, meaning "variegated", via the Hindi 'चीता' (cītā). The cheetah's entire anatomy is built for speed: observe the small, aerodynamic head, flexible spine, long, flat tail for high-speed cornering and long legs for long strides. Like the hyaena, the cheetah has a broad, deep chest to accommodate extra-large lungs which in turn are fed by large nostrils that allow an optimum level of oxygen to be taken in whilst on the hunt.
The cheetah's beauty and speed has long been admired and it was the cheetah that was accorded the honour of carrying the departed Pharaohs' souls to the hereafter; many paintings found in royal tombs depict the cheetah and its image has been found on many Egyptian artefacts. It was accorded great prestige in the royal courts and in bygone days cheetahs were also caught and tamed by the Indian Rajas to be trained and used like hunting dogs. Unlike the other 'big' cats, the cheetah can purr – but not roar.
Sadly, because the cheetah is one of the lowest predators in its domain, it frequently loses its kills to larger predators such as lions, leopards and hyaenas. Because of this, it is obliged to hunt more frequently than other predators and it therefore poses a far greater threat to livestock than them. This makes it an easy target for those who do not protect their livestock with responsible animal husbandry methods. Again, unlike other predators, cheetahs are diurnal hunters and their hunting behaviours are far too often disrupted by tourist vehicles' behaviour. "Why don't you breed more cheetahs in captivity, to be released?" is the question often asked. The simple answer is that cheetahs are very difficult to breed in captivity and it is therefore hard to boost their numbers in this fashion
Spotted Hyaena (Crocuta crocuta): Strongest Bite
Vilified by many, and demonized by Kenyans in general, hyaenas are possibly the most fascinating and misunderstood of the predators. Whilst living in the Masai Mara I was fortunate enough to spend much of my time accompanying the resident hyaena researchers in their work, running cognition and behavioural studies and, as a result, learning a lot about these amazing creatures.
Best-known for their distinctive laughing and whooping calls and famed as scavengers, spotted hyaenas are in fact skilled, intelligent and efficient predators in their own right; with large hearts that constitute approximately 1% of their overall body weight they have great endurance and can run prey to exhaustion during long chases. Spotted hyaena society is matriarchal; hyaenas live together in large groups called "clans" which can contain as many as 50 individuals and which are led by an alpha female. They may look similar in appearance to dogs but are in fact more closely-related to the cat family. They have the strongest bite of any mammal proportionate to their size, with a bite pressure of 800kgf/cm2. That's 40% more force than a leopard generates and stronger than the jaws of a Brown Bear! In the wild, hyaenas have even been observed biting through the long bones of giraffes, which can measure over 7cm in diameter. Acidic fluids in their stomachs mean they can digest not only flesh but hair, bone and teeth as well. Hyenas hunt highly effectively in a pack and are the most efficient predators at scenting out weakness or injury. They will often make their way through a herd, isolating one ill or infirm member, and then pursue it to the death. They are frequently seen squabbling and "giggling" over the resulting carcass, both amongst themselves and also with other powerful predators such as lions, who will readily steal the kills of spotted hyaenas.
To get the most from your game drive, please follow the park rules and remember:
1. Explore: Switch off the radio and explore the park. Even on the busiest of days large parts of the park are empty of people yet full of wildlife. To protect the animals and the ecosystem, please do not exceed the park speed limit of 50kph.
2. Keep It Real: Human activity interferes with an animal's behaviour. To see an animal behave naturally you must keep a good distance away. Any closer than 25 metres (roughly five vehicle lengths) constitutes harassment of the animal and a breach of park rules, and you could face an on-the-spot fine.
3. Keep to a Whisper: Wild animals move away or freeze if they hear human voices. To watch animals continue with their normal hunting, feeding and nursing activities you must lower your voice. Do not sound your horn or play radios or portable music players.
4. Take a Closer Look: You are allowed to leave the track to get closer to the Big Five. Take the shortest route from the track and stop 25 metres from the animals. Always return the way you came, straight back to the track. Rangers will issue an on-the-spot fine for off-roading without a confirmed sighting. Please note that NO off-road driving is permitted in the delicate river zone of the Masai Mara.
5. Take an Even Closer Look: To get a better view, use your binoculars! Never put your guide at risk of being fined, or even banned from the park, by asking him to drive too close to an animal.
6. Sit & Observe: If you keep to park rules, you can stay with the animals as long as they are not disturbed by your presence. No more than five vehicles are allowed around one wildlife sighting; when more than five the viewing time is reduced to 10 minutes. Take it in turn to view the sighting, waiting at a distance of 100 metres.
7. Have a Picnic: You are allowed out of your vehicle at designated viewing points along the river and designated picnic sites only. If you are with a professional guide you may picnic under a tree but remember to check for animals, including the branches above for leopards. Stay within 25 metres of your vehicle at all times.
8. Don't Share Your Lunch! Wild animals become habituated if fed, causing them to abandon normal hunting and feeding behaviours. They can then become aggressive and threatening towards humans, which may lead to them having to be destroyed.
9. Enjoy the View: Welcome to one of the most beautiful places on earth. Keep it this way by taking all litter home with you, including cigarette butts. If safe to do so, please pick up (or have your driver pick up) litter that you see in the park.
10. Let Sleeping Lions Lie: Respect the animals by not goading them into action by calling, clapping hands, banging on the side of the vehicle or slamming doors. If an animal shows avoidance tactics and tries to leave an area, or is engaged in hunting, feeding or nursing activities, do not block its path or pursue it. Vehicles can cause confusion and separate an animal from its young; always keep a good distance from young animals as well as dens, burrows and nests.
11. Leave the Park Where it Is: We want everyone to enjoy the wonders of our parks. Do not take any specimens with you. Bones, feathers, stones, plants and flowers must all stay where they are.
12. Keep your Eye on the Sun: The sun sets at around 1830hrs, the same time the park gates close for the night. Please ensure you allow plenty of time to exit the park, and do not drive there before 0600hrs or after 1900hrs if you are staying at a lodge or camp inside the park.