Historically, the giraffe has been an animal widely prized by royal courts as an exotic animal. In the Egypt of the pharaohs, giraffes appeared as decorative motifs on pottery, vases and ivory combs. The Arabs, ancient travellers extraordinaire, were so taken by giraffes, that they ensured its wide dispersal, from the place of its origin (East Africa) to the Indian subcontinent in the east, and then the ancient Roman Empire to the west.

In Arabic, the giraffe was called “zarafa” or even the “joruba”. The Arabs believed the giraffe came about from the conjoining of a camel and a panther or a leopard, and hence the giraffe’s early name of camelopard. There are even records of the giraffe as a fixture at the Roman circus, around the 1st century BCE.

A recent report by the United Nation’s International Union for the Conservation of Nature, highlighted the devastating decline in giraffe numbers, noting that the tallest land mammal was now in clear danger of extinction.

The report also served as a tragic reminder of Marius, the two-year-old giraffe at the Copenhagen zoo, that was killed in 2014 despite worldwide protests – because he was believed to be genetically unsuitable for breeding.

How the Chinese saw the giraffe

Long before the Chinese ever saw a giraffe, they came up with drawings of it – renderings of an animal they referred to as the camel-ox. A Chinese book from the mid-12th century, describes the giraffe thus:

"In South Africa the name 'giraffe' is practically unknown, and the Dutch term 'kameel' is always used." Credit: The Giraffe in history and Art by Berthold Laufer

“Its skin is like that of a leopard, its hoof is like that of an ox, but the animal is devoid of a hump. Its neck is nine feet long, and its body is over ten feet high.”

This description was similar to that of the mythical creature known to the ancient Chinese as the qilin, described as resembling a unicorn, its body covered with fish scales. Despite its strange appearance, the qilin is believed to have symbolised kindness and compassion, and was considered an auspicious omen.

In the early 15th century (especially the years 1408-’12 and again, 1415-’21), during the reign of Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, Zheng He, the eunuch-admiral explorer and diplomat made more than 20 sea voyages, travelling from Southeast Asia towards west Asia, reaching the Persian Gulf long before the Europeans. Zheng not only opened trade and diplomatic relations with the countries he visited, but he also returned to the Mongol court with several exotic animals.

This not only reflected Zheng’s travels but also indicated the reach of the Mongol court. The creatures he brought home included the tapi, the zebra and even the ostrich. But the giraffe was the first to reach China as a gift (along with horses), from the ruler of Bengal, Saifuddin Hamza, of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty.

This giraffe, it was believed, travelled to China via the sea. The Arabs transported giraffes, as well as other goods and creatures first to Mabar (or Malabar), and then to China.

When it first appeared, many Chinese people believed the giraffe was in fact the mythical qilin. One of Zheng’s generals, Ma Huan, a woodcutter who accompanied the admiral on his expeditions to the western nations, described the journey of the giraffe in detail – a fact mentioned by Berthold Laufer, the German American specialist on China in the early 20th century. Ma Huan believed that the giraffe was transported to the port of Aden, in the Red Sea, from the east coast of Africa by the Arabs.

The Giraffe from India: A European misunderstanding

"The neck of all giraffes bears a short mane extending from the occiput to the withers." Credit: The Giraffe in history and Art by Berthold Laufer

In Europe, just around the time that the Chinese glimpsed their first giraffe, misconceptions grew about its place of origin. In the early centuries of the first millennium CE, as Laufer writes, a distinction was made between India the Greater and India the Lesser. There was never a consensus about what really constituted these two Indias, but based on evidence of old trade links and other historical connections between India and east Africa (especially the port of Gondar in Ethiopia), India the Lesser was largely taken to mean Abyssinia and part of the Horn of Africa.

Around the 5th century CE, there is mention that emperor Anastasius of the Eastern Roman Empire received a gift from India, that included an elephant and two animals known as “camelopardalis”. This India, based on what we know of the giraffe’s origins, is now believed to be Abyssinia or Ethiopia.

Two centuries later, around the 7th century CE, the Greek Cassianus Bassus wrote a work on agriculture called Geoponia where he mentions a camelopard brought from India.

These errors gained ground a millennium later, in the 1550s, when the French priest and traveller, Andre Thevet wrote his Cosmographie du Levant. In the three months, he spent at Cairo, Thevet mentions the giraffe. Thevet’s grasp of Arabic was poor, and while he was right about the Arabs transporting the giraffes from Aden and even Abyssinia, he believed that the giraffes had been brought from farther away, or, from India. In fact, Thevet wrote that the giraffes were found “in the high mountains in interior India beyond the river Ganges” and he concluded that the giraffe was the very “image of the learned and educated man”.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Half a century later, in 1607, the English writer and artist, Edward Topsell published his lavishly illustrated History of Four-footed Beasts (almost an early version of “Fantastic Beasts”). Topsell wrote that the giraffe was known in the region called Abasia in India.

In fact, Abasia was what Marco Polo, the Venetian traveller to 13th century China, called Abyssinia, and so the confusion that conflated Abasia, Abyssinia and Midde India as one region continued. Marco Polo, however, had also indicated that the giraffe was typically found in Madagascar (another error), and then also in Zanzibar and Abasia.

The adventures of Zarafa

Renaissance Italy did come to cultivate some familiarity with the giraffe. In the 1480s, Lorenzo de Medici, the banker and art patron, had a menagerie that included leopards, lions, bears and elephants. A giraffe was presented to him by Egypt’s Mameluk Sultan. Around this time, the giraffe made its first appearance in a Renaissance painting: Gentile Bellini’s (later completed by his brother, Giovanni), “Preaching of St. Mark at Alexandria”, shows Moorish structures, a cathedral, monks, turban wearing “Orientals” thronging a square, and then a giraffe on the painting’s right.

The most famous giraffe, however, was Zarafa, the two-year-old female giraffe that was a present from Mehmet Ali, the Pasha of Egypt, to the French king, Charles X (a second giraffe was also presented to King George IV of England, immortalised in a painting by Jacques-Laurent Agasse).

In 1826, Zarafa travelled from Sudan, to Alexandria (Egypt), then onto Marseille, before she reached Paris in 1827. The king had her placed in the Jardin des Plantes, and she immediately became a huge public draw. Zarafa figured as a decorative motif – she was incorporated into prevailing fashions of the day, in the way in which neckties and hats were designed, and the ways in which fashionable ladies did their hair. There were also poems written about Zarafa.

The French writer Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) wrote a well-known satirical story based on Zarafa. The story, known for its very long title was called Discourse from the Giraffe to the Chief of the Six Osages (or Indians), delivered on the day of their visit to the King’s Garden, translated from the Arabic by Alibassan, the Giraffe’s interpreter, and is based on another popular event of Balzac’s time: the visit of six Osega Native Americans from Louisiana in the US to the French court in Paris.

The French had sold Louisiana to the US in 1803, and the six Native American delegates had come seeking to represent their lost rights to the French king. However, like Zarafa, they found themselves becoming public exhibits instead. Balzac’s point of course, still relevant, was how imperialism makes exhibits of all the subjects it marginalises.

The French-Belgian animated film, Zarafa, (2012) tells the fictitious story of Maki, a ten-year-old Sudanese orphan who travels to safety with Zarafa, a young giraffe-calf, rescued from the hands of slave-traders.

'One of the most beautiful features of the giraffe are the eyes, which are dark brown, large and lustrous, full, soft, and melting, and shaded by long lashes.'