Gerenuk performs amazing gymnastics to survive.

A picture of gerenuks eating from tree.

When you enter Samburu National Park in Northern Kenya.

Your eyes may dart from side to side, taking in the array of wildlife, until they focus on the charming sight of what appears to be a baby giraffe hungrily nibbling on a tree.

But on closer examination you may observe that this is no giraffe.

“What animal may you have noticed?”

It is a Gerenuk.

Gerenuk, comes from the Somali language and means “giraffe-necked.”

The animal is called Swala Twiga in Swahili, meaning “giraffe gazelle.”

It is a creature about the size of a deer with two graceful horns sweeping back.

When feeding Gerenuk stands up on its hind legs, supporting itself on a tree branch with its forelegs.

It certainly does seem giraffe-like as its exceptionally long neck stretches, allowing it to feed from six to eight feet [1.8 to 2.4 m] off the ground.

What a delight just to stare at this creature, with its heart-shaped head, expressive eyes, and huge ears!

Only the males, however, have horns.

A Long-Necked Gourmet

This graceful gazelle often dwells in near-desert surroundings.

Surely it must develop an insatiable thirst for water.

Yet, the amazing fact is that the gerenuk rarely if ever drinks water.

It is able to extract all the moisture it needs from the leaves, shoots, and twigs that it eats.

And because the gerenuk is willing to eat from about 80 different types of shrubs and trees—including evergreen plants that few other animals eat—it is able to thrive in the most barren of regions.

In its own way, the gerenuk is somewhat of a fussy eater, since it selects only the best portions of plants, the parts high in nutritional value.

Interestingly, though, the gerenuk feeds on the same types of shoots and twigs as do the giraffe and the dik-dik, which is a smaller member of the antelope family, about the size of a jackrabbit.

Yet, there is no competition among them for food. Why?

Because of the varying heights at which they feed: giraffes between 15 and 18 feet [4.6 and 5.5 m], gerenuks around 6 feet [1.8 m], and the little dik-dik around 2 feet [0.6 m].

“No Trespassing sign”

Unlike humans, who often wage war over territory, the gerenuks generally maintain peace among themselves by respecting one another’s property.

Each defines its boundaries by using its anteorbital gland at the corner of each eye.

It selects an area of about half a square mile and with this gland deposits a tarlike substance on branches and twigs.

The substance gives off a scent, and in this way the territory of the gerenuk is defined to any neighbor gerenuk.

But what about unwanted intruders, such as the cheetah, the leopard, or the lion, who have little respect for “No Trespassing” signs?

The gerenuk must resort to its secrets of survival.

For example, it has an amazing ability to freeze and stare, dropping its big ears down close to its neck.

With its beautiful brown tones, it blends in very nicely with its natural surroundings.

It remains motionless in this way until the unwanted visitors take their leave.

Should it be detected, however, the gerenuk will use flight to avoid predators.

Its knowledge of the home range, as well as its ability to dodge in and out among thorny bushes and shrubs, makes following it very difficult for most predators.

Mother Care

At birth the gerenuk lacks survival skills. Its mother, therefore, gets the baby gerenuk through its first days of life.

When the time arrives for a gerenuk to give birth, it finds a place of solitude.

Most babies are born during the morning hours, allowing them to gain strength before the perilous night comes.

Amazingly, after just ten minutes, a baby gerenuk is up on those wobbly, skinny legs!

By evening time it is quite active, even entertaining Mother with its playful pranks.

At this early stage, the baby Gerenuk is easy prey.

Mother therefore cleans her baby thoroughly, so that it is devoid of any telltale scents.

And its natural camouflage allows it to hide safely while Mother goes out for food.

Occasionally, though, the young gazelle changes location.

Since the mother cannot rely on odor as a tracking device, she resorts to Gerenuk talk—a low bleat, which can carry quite far though it is soft to human ears.

The baby will respond to this bleat by standing up or by answering the call, identifying its whereabouts.

After two weeks, the young Gerenuk need no longer be hidden away but can join its family in browsing for twigs and leaves.

The gerenuk has been called “one of the strangest creatures in East Africa.”

And admittedly, on the basis of looks alone, it is rather strange.

But our giraffe-gazelle friend is also graceful, resourceful, and in its own way beautiful.