Incredible journey of France’s first giraffe

The National Museum of Natural History in La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime) is the only place where tourists can see the remains of Zarafa, the first giraffe to land on foot in France and became a national monument in Paris from 1827 to 1845.

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At 4.3 meters tall, Zarafa has been on display in a museum stairwell for the world to see since 1931, thanks to exceptional conservation work that has kept her almost untouched since her death.

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It was offered to King Charles X by the Egyptian pasha Méhémet-Ali in 1827 in a diplomatic attempt to escape the yoke of the Ottoman Empire and seek Western sympathies for independence, and then exhibited in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes.

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Charles X depicted riding on Zarafa. Credit: Public domain

‘giraffe addiction’

Zarafa spawned “giraffe craze,” a frenzy from which the animal inspired paintings, writings, cartoonists, songs, French expressions, and even pastries and—yes—a haircut.

But most of the animal’s story was lost in the tangles of history before two American and French authors published separate books that sparked renewed interest.

“Zarafa is my personal connection to Africa,” says Olivier Lebleu, author of the book In the footsteps of Zarafa and a retired journalist who was in love with Zarafa due to family ties to the continent.

Inspired by Mr. Lebleu’s book zarafaa 2012 theatrical film that sold 1.4 million tickets in France and cemented his position as one of the few experts on Zarafa’s history.

Zarafa landed in the port of Marseille on October 23, 1826 and stayed through the winter season for acclimatization before embarking on a 41-day voyage to Paris, covering between 20 and 25 kilometers per day at a speed of 3.5 kilometers per hour.

Vase inspired by Zarafa’s arrival in France. Credit: Public domain

600,000 visitors in the summer of 1827

Zarafa arrived at 5:00 p.m. on June 30, 1827 and was moved to the Jardin des Plantes, which attracted 600,000 visitors in the summer of 1827. The animal remained there until its death on January 12, 1845.

The French expression “peigner la girafe” (‘combing a giraffe’) – meaning to work on a long, tedious, and useless task – presumably stems from the janitor’s tedious work of combing Zafara.

Its name derives from the Arabic words “gracious” and “kind” and was given by Michael Allin, an American author who wrote the first book on the story behind the giraffe’s adventure in 1998.

The skeleton died during World War II while the skull is on display in the Comparative anatomy gallery of the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris (this was confirmed by The Connexion by the museum).

Austria and England were the other two countries that were gifted giraffes, but both died (after eight months and two and a half years, respectively) from dislocated knees caused by ill-adapted pavements, Mr Lebleu said.

Mr. Lebleu now plans to travel to Tanzania in 2023 to participate in a list of endangered giraffes with an American charity. He’s already planning something for the 200th anniversary of Zarafa’s landing in France.

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