Zoo's new Masai giraffe is 12 feet tall and growing fast

October 24, 2016 - 9:33am

Buttercup, a 2-year-old giraffe from Santa Barbara, joins the Oregon Zoo family

The Oregon Zoo welcomed a new, and very tall, addition to its Africa Savanna habitat this week: Buttercup, a 2-year-old Masai giraffe from the Santa Barbara Zoo, is 12 feet tall and growing.

Buttercup, who arrived Wednesday morning, made the move to Portland in an extra-tall trailer equipped with a video camera so keepers could make sure he was safe inside. Keepers made special arrangements to ease the transition, giving him access to the indoor giraffe space and a walled-off section of the yard.

The zoo's animal-care experts say he will spend a month or so adjusting to his new home, and visitors can expect to see him later this fall. Eventually, keepers will introduce Buttercup to his new companions — Bakari and Desi, as well as the smaller animals, such as ground hornbills and Speke's gazelles, that share space with giraffes in the outdoor Africa Savanna habitat.

Masai giraffes — the largest giraffe subspecies and the tallest mammals on earth — can grow to around 18 feet tall. Other impressive stats include: tongues up to 21 inches long, running speeds of up to 35 mph, and the ability to eat up to 75 pounds of leaves and brush a day.

The conservation status of the Masai subspecies is currently under review by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Scientists estimate fewer than 33,000 of these giraffes remain in eastern Africa, where populations have declined by more than 50 percent in recent years, in part due to poaching.

Around 120 Masai giraffes live in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as part of the AZA's Species Survival Plan for the species, a cooperative program aimed at ensuring a sustainable, genetically diverse population in North America.

"That's barely enough to sustain a healthy population into the future," said Oregon Zoo deputy director Sheri Horizsny, who serves as the SSP coordinator for giraffes. "Every Masai giraffe we care for is critical to keeping this species alive, and Buttercup is especially important, genetically speaking, because he has very few relatives in zoos. Our hope is that he will start a family of his own one day."

Horiszny, a longtime giraffe benefactor, has founded three conservation initiatives to help these animals in the wild: Care for Karamoja, aimed at improving the lives of people, giraffes, ostriches and other wildlife in Uganda's Karamoja region; Jeans for Giraffes, which generates funding for giraffe conservation through public donations of used jeans; and the Giraffe Conservation Alliance, one of the first giraffe conservation nonprofits in the United States.

Buttercup was born at the Santa Barbara Zoo on Nov. 13, 2014. He was 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 186 pounds, and stood upright with an assist after about 50 minutes.