BY Eston Ellis
Photography by Tammy Spratt
Videography by Dustin Trayer
On December 13, 2015, at 11:20 a.m., Zoo guests got a special treat: a Masai giraffe was born on exhibit at Urban Jungle! Nicky, an 18-year-old, four-time mom, was in labor for about an hour and a half—a relatively short time, as giraffe births go.
There was a gasp from the gathered crowd at the moment a tiny, wet giraffe suddenly dropped six feet to the ground, head first. Then, there were cheers when he got up and took his first stumbling baby steps. One guest managed to capture that rare experience on a cellphone and posted the video on YouTube, sharing it with the world.
A Little Guy
It was soon clear that this was a very special giraffe—not just because he was a newborn who entered the world with an audience cheering him on, but also because he was unusually small. Measuring 5 feet, 3 inches tall, and weighing 117 pounds, this was the smallest giraffe born at the San Diego Zoo in 15 years; the average giraffe is more than 6 feet tall at birth.
No one is sure why the little guy, soon named Obi, was born so small. He was not premature (Nicky had a normal 15-month pregnancy term), and although his mom is considered relatively petite for an adult giraffe, she has had full-size calves in the past. Oddly enough, “pocket-sized” Obi has a “giant-sized” father: Silver, the Zoo’s biggest giraffe, weighs 2,585 pounds.
Katie Tomlinson, senior keeper, has been working with Obi since he was born. She watched as he took his first steps, and she saw him quickly find his way in the herd. Katie said she immediately knew he was special, because she was taller than he was. “I’m 5 feet, 5 inches tall—and having a chance to be taller than a giraffe, even for a very short time, was very exciting.”
Katie marveled at how the gangly, young Obi could easily stand under his tall, long-legged dad, Silver, fitting perfectly under his tummy. But he’s not that small anymore: Obi is a growing giraffe, and while he’s still small for his age, he’s growing at a normal rate.
A Special Name for a Special Giraffe
Obi was named around the time Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrived in theaters, but his name has no relation to the character from the original Star Wars movies, Obi-Wan Kenobi. “People think that’s why we named him Obi,” Katie said. “But Obi actually means ‘heart’ in the Nigerian Igbo language.”
The name seems especially fitting for a small giraffe with a big personality and a sweet demeanor. “Obi’s a really sweet, personable giraffe,” Katie explained. “He’s very curious, funny, and just seems to enjoy being around us. He warmed to us quickly and was taking food from us—browse—at a very early age.”
All in the Family
From his first day, mother Nicky lavished tender loving care on Obi, Katie said. “Nicky was so attentive with him. We saw him nursing from the get-go.” The rest of the herd also quickly warmed to Obi, Katie said. “Bahati, our oldest female, is almost like an aunt figure. He spends a lot of time with her. Silver tolerates him really well, and he has fit in very nicely.”
There was one giraffe he had to win over, though. When Obi was born, giraffe calf Domibella was about seven months old, and up until that point had been the “cuteness” focal point of the giraffe exhibit. That changed when Obi arrived. “At first, she was not super thrilled with him,” Katie said. “He was competition. She was used to being the baby.” However, Obi’s friendly ways eventually won over Domibella, and the two became best buddies that hang out together. “They formed a great friendship,” Katie explained.
“Having her and Obi in the exhibit together, you get a good perception of just how much giraffes grow in that first year,” Katie said. “Domibella is a few feet taller than he is, bigger, and bulkier overall—but she’s only seven months older.” Giraffes grow a remarkable one inch every day in their first week, and continue to grow rapidly throughout their first year.
At three months old, Obi was weighed and measured again, weighing in at over 270 pounds and measuring just under 7 feet tall. “That’s a big milestone: he’s growing and gaining weight as he should,” Katie said. Obi was expected to reach 300 pounds by his next weigh-in.
Helping Giraffes Survive
While Obi may face a few new challenges on the way to adulthood, giraffes in the wild are currently facing major threats to their very existence. “Most people don’t realize how endangered giraffes are, or how much of their population has been affected by poaching, habitat loss, and overgrazing of resources by livestock in Africa,” Katie said. The populations of two giraffe subspecies—the West African or Nigerian giraffe and the Rothschild’s or Baringo giraffe—have already dropped to such low levels that they are now endangered.
San Diego Zoo Global has partnered with Northern Rangelands Trust and other organizations, including the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, to conserve giraffes in East Africa. A team of scientists from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research is helping develop a conservation project with Kenyan pastoralists, to find ways to collaborate and protect giraffes in the savanna, including creating a fenced sanctuary. And closer to home, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park giraffe breeding program has produced more than 164 giraffe calves since 1972.
On May 25, Obi officially stopped being “the baby” of his herd when Harriet, one of the herd’s females, gave birth to a new calf. “It will be interesting to see how the herd dynamic changes, and it will be great to see how Obi progresses as he becomes an adult,” Katie said.
Obi is already learning husbandry behaviors so that he can help keepers with his health maintenance procedures, and his training continues. “It has been so much fun to get to work with him every day,” Katie said.
At the Zoo’s Urban Jungle, you can see what’s new with our growing giraffe herd—and watch as little Obi grows bigger each week.