Pen Ultimate / Sticking My Neck Out

On a trinominal, and truly Zionist, species of giraffe.

This was going to be a nice, cheerful, end-of-year column, overflowing with the milk of human kindness, but just as I was getting down to writing it, a giraffe reared its peculiar head and set me off course. There was an urgent matter at hand, as you will soon find out.

It turns out that while we assumed that there is only one species of giraffe in the world, the persons who spend their lives researching such matters reached a stunning conclusion: There are six. Indeed, it appears that each of the six sub-species of giraffes, each with a triple-word Latin name, is actually a species in its own right, which has its own lineage, differs in its DNA, and underwent very little interbreeding.

This revelation was published in the BioMed Central Journal of Biology, and the news agencies picked it up. The Haaretz Internet site quoted the story, and a heated debate ensued between readers over the correct zoological terminology, until one of them intervened with a timely and well-put post: "Just when you're least expecting it, they come up with another kind of a giraffe."

Now, it does not really matter if there is one species of giraffe or six, unless you care about animals that are on the verge of extinction, or you are a giraffe yourself. According to various sources, there are about 110,000 living giraffes in the wild, all in West Africa. But if the species do not crossbreed, it means that there are some kinds of giraffes that are closer to extinction than others: for instance, the giraffa camelopardis rothschildi, of which, according to the new classification, there are fewer than 100 - some say only 40 - in existence. And if you have gathered that said giraffe is somehow related to "the" Rothschilds, you are right.

But before we get to the surname and family matters, there are some things to be said about the animal's first and middle names. The tall (up to 6-meter) giraffe, as we know it today, with its impossibly long neck, strangely shaped head and spots, has been around on Earth for the last million years or so. When it was first mentioned in the writings of Agatharchides and Strabo, the Greeks, or Pliny the Elder of Rome, more than 2,000 years ago, they assumed that the animal was an "assemblage" of two very different animals: the camel, by virtue of the head and the neck, and the leopard, by virtue of the spots. Hence the Latin and Greek name of the animal, camelopardis - a cross between a camel and a leopard, one of nature's oddities, found in Africa or in Roman circuses.

The camelopard even trotted into the Bible, at least in its Greek and Latin versions, and was mentioned as one of those beasts the Israelites were allowed to eat (Deuteronomy 14:5). The original Hebrew word that was translated by the Greeks and Jerome as "camelopard" has nothing to do with giraffes, and the English version of the Bible translated the word as "a chamois." Anyway, the animal was referred to as "camelopard" until the 15th century, when specimens were presented to Lorenzo de Medici, Tamerlaine and a Chinese emperor, and the caretakers who came with them from Africa told their hosts that back home, the beast was called zurafa or zarafa - meaning in Arabic (depending on the source you are quoting): "walking swiftly," "tall," "nice" or "assemblage." Since then, in many languages, it has been renamed "giraffe."

Banks and butterflies

But how and when did it join the Rothschild family, and in what capacity? Walter Rothschild (1868-1937) was the firstborn son and heir of the first Jewish peer in England, Lord Nathan Rothschild. He was expected to take over the family business, but already at the age of seven he announced to his parents that he intended to run a zoological museum. From an early age he collected insects, butterflies and animals, live and stuffed. While still in his teens, the gardens of the family home in the town of Tring hosted live kangaroos and exotic birds.

At 21, Rothschild had to start work at the family's bank, and he kept at it, unwillingly, for many years. But at the same time, he got a consolation present from his parents: a zoological museum, which served as a base from which expeditions were sent to seek out animals all over the world. He himself went to study zoology at Cambridge, accompanied by a flock of his beloved kiwis. He opened his museum to the public, and it was one of the richest private collections in the world.

Although he was very shy (despite towering over everyone at a height of 6'3"), Rothschild had his photograph taken riding on a giant turtle, and once drove a carriage harnessed to six zebras to Buckingham Palace (to prove a scientific point: that zebras can be tamed).

He published the results of his studies, mainly in taxonomy, but while existing scientific journals insisted on binomial Latin terminology (genus and species only), he favored the trinomial type (genus, species and sub-species). When the authorities refused to be persuaded, he started a scientific journal of his own.

Because Rothschild was the first to describe a subspecies of giraffe of a certain color and with five horns (instead of two) on its head, it was named after him: giraffe camelopardis rothschildi. Another 153 insects, 58 birds, 17 mammals, 3 fish, 3 spiders, 2 reptiles, 1 milliped and 1 worm also carry his name. He gave scientific names to hundreds of species and subspecies of other animals, birds and insects.

After almost 20 years of toil in the bank, in 1908, Rothschild was allowed to retire and devote all his time (and money) to his studies. His younger brother Charles replaced him at the helm of the bank. Charles' hobby, by the way, was the collection and study of fleas.

Toward the end of his life, Walter, who was blackmailed by a woman (possibly more than once), had to sell a sizable part of his butterfly collection to a natural science museum in the United States.

He was a Liberal member of Parliament from 1899 to 1910, when he retired from politics. In 1915 he became the second Lord Rothschild, and was the addressee at his London home at 148 Picadilly, on November 2, 1917, of a letter from the British foreign secretary, known today as "The Balfour Declaration," in which it is stated that: "His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

So, next time you see two giraffes necking (which they do, as the elongated appendage serves mainly as an instrument of courtship or as a weapon), remember this: This animal is an endangered species. We of all people should do something about it, as it is one of us - well, at least the giraffa camelopardis rothschildi, a truly Zionist giraffe, is, even though it did not make an aliyah, but instead remained fairly close to Uganda.