The Royal Giraffe

Melissa Shales looks back through history. At a time before we could go on safari or see photos, what must a royal giraffe have looked like in the streets of Europe?

The urge to collect the new and extraordinary is almost as old as man him (or her) self. It's part of the innate curiosity that drives our species towards discovery and knowledge. Just as old as the urge to kill animals are the desires to wonder at them. To possess them, to trade them and to offer them as gifts. As royal and aristocratic courts from Pharaonic Egypt to Ottoman Istanbul set up menageries. He filled them with exotic species. But one animal stands – quite literally – head and shoulders above the rest as a royal gift. The giraffe.

The Camel Leopard

Ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut (1508–1478BC) was the first person in history known to have a menagerie and there is a giraffe carved into the wall of her magnificent temple in Luxor. However, it was relatively simple to get the animals as far as Egypt. It was a wholly different matter transporting them by sea. The first known royal giraffe to reach Europe was brought back from Egypt by Julius Caesar in 46BC. They named it a camelopardalis (camel-leopard), a title still acknowledged in its official species name, the giraffa camelopardalis. Far from preparing to wonder at the delights of the glorious beast, however, the blood-thirsty Romans promptly sent it to its death, torn to pieces by lions during the dedication of Caesar’s Forum. Hundreds more followed.

A Mythic Beast

Well over a thousand years passed before the next giraffes are known to have set off on their travels, this time on a long sea voyage, courtesy of the great Chinese navigator, Zheng He, who first met a giraffe in Bengal. This was taken back to China and presented to the Yongle emperor as a gift from King Saif Al-Din Hamzah Shah of Bengal (r. 1410–12). The Admiral, much taken with it, arranged with the Sultan of Malindi on the East African coast to have a second one shipped to Beijing., along with a zebra and an oryx.

The royal giraffes arrived in 1415 where they were greeted as miraculous embodiments of the Qilin (ch’i-lin), an extremely auspicious mythical creature similar to a unicorn, of supreme wisdom, grace and benevolence. Court poet and painter, Shen Du (1357-1434) celebrated it both with a portrait and a poem that ended: “Gentle is this animal, that has in antiquity been seen but once, The manifestation of its divine spirit rises up to heaven’s abode.”

The Charming One

By now Arabic word for the animal, zerafa (meaning ‘charming’ or ‘lovely’ one) appears to have taken over but the first official use of it appears in a work of 1546 by French naturalist Pierre Belon. The giraffe has stopped being a sideshow spectacle and is now a recognised beauty. A royal giraffe.

The star’s next European appearance was in 1486 when Florence was sent into a fashionable frenzy by the arrival of a giraffe. She was sent as a present to Lorenzo de Medici by Quait Bey, the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt. She was tame enough to accept to be hand-fed by the aristocratic ladies of the city. And she was such a sensation that a district and a Palio team in nearby Siena remain named after her to this day – Contrada della Giraffa.

Fashionable superstar

Moghul Emperor Jahangir and Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent both owned giraffes but little has been written about them. After that, all was quiet for centuries. That is, until 1825, when France was set ablaze by the arrival of one of the first four-legged superstars. It was a royal giraffe gifted to King Charles X by Muhammed Ali Pasha, the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt. Ordered from Sennar in Sudan as an infant, she slowly made her way along the Nile and across the Mediterranean. During this passage, she was flanked by her team of handlers and milk cows. She then set off to walk across France, bizarrely wearing a vast waxed taffeta raincoat and boots!

By the time they reached Lyons, the crowds were so huge that mounted cavalry were pressed into service for control. And an old lady was injured when the frightened giraffe bolted, leaving chaos in her wake. She eventually reached Paris safely where she became the undoubted success of the season. And she inspired everything from hairstyles and jewelry to porcelain, hats and snacks.

The royal giraffe, now a "celebrity icon", lived out her days in comfort at the Jardin des Plantes. She died of old age in 1845. Two other giraffes sent by the Viceroy to King George IV of England and Francis 1 of Austria didn’t fare as well. They died within a couple of years of arrival, although both stirred short-lived fame on arrival.

The Collectors’ Passion

The passion for collecting animals has continued unabated. Heads of state still receive live animals as gifts. Today, the givers of such gifts are more conscious and respectful of the benefits to the species and the individual animals. Such as swapping animals between zoos to improve breeding stock of rare species or translocating endangered animals to repopulate parks. But animals do still end up in circuses, as fighting animals or for parts – fur or medicine – or, as recently shown by Zimbabwe’s gift of baby elephants to China, handed over to zoos with little thought to their ongoing welfare. Not all are as pampered as France’s gentle, fashion-forward superstar.

I had heard of the Chinese giraffes and was then given Michael Allin’s excellent book, Zarafa, published by Headline, from which I have taken much of the information in this blog. It tells the story of the French giraffe in great detail and I highly recommend it.

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By Melissa Shales
United Kingdom UK

Melissa is an award winning travel writer for Fodors, Frommers and Insight, including guides to Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

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