When the Copenhagen Zoo on Sunday killed a giraffe whose genes it couldn't use in its breeding program, it fed the carcass to the zoo's lions. While the general public was appalled at the zoo's decision, the carcass did provide those carnivores with some of the meat they would have consumed in the wild, still attached to the body of their natural prey. The New York Times pointed out that "the species is not endangered, but it faces threats from habitat loss and hunting." After that, it was hard not to wonder: If people hunt giraffes, they must eat them. And if so, what does the meat taste like? The descriptions we found, while intriguing, still did not make us want to try it.
While not all giraffe hunting is illegal — people pay handsomely for safaris on private land in South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe — many of those who harvest these long-necked herbivores are poachers trafficking in bushmeat. That catch-all term refers to meat taken from animals in the African wild, usually illegally and with no regard for the health of animal populations.
As one game warden in Kenya told the Africa Review news site, giraffes "are now easy targets for poachers because the animals have a lot of meat on their bones. Meat [from] one giraffe can be equal to meat that one gets from four elands [antelopes]." The meat is frequently sold extremely cheaply, and the often-minimal fines for trading in it can be frustratingly ineffective at preventing it.
But the meat can be obtained legitimately, both in Africa and apparently here in the United States, sometimes appearing on restaurant menus. A restaurant called Panache opened in Killington, Vermont, around 1994 or so, offering a menu of exotic meats that included giraffe. According to the Boston Phoenix in 1997, that offering consisted of "a red meat that was served very rare, which made it extra tender. It had a melt-in-your-mouth quality."
One Montana-based business called Giraffine claims to sell live animals as well as meat, which its website describes as "intensely flavored lean meat; It tastes very similar to horse meat but more tender." A call to Giraffine was not immediately returned.
The travel site Bootsnall spoke with the owner of a Johannesburg restaurant called Carnivore, which sells a variety of local exotic meats. The restaurant says it gets its giraffe meat through registered culling programs. Owner Allen Dixon told Bootsnall's Mattie John Bamman, "giraffe meat has a great deal of sinew ... It can be quite tough and chewy, however, it is very flavorful."
Apparently results vary with this particular meat, but nothing we've read so far makes it sound particularly enticing. It is kosher, for what it's worth.
Still, the meat has its evangelists, such as British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who told an interviewer in 2009, "I've tasted giraffe and crocodile and I can highly recommend them." But Fearnley-Whittingstall also got a lot of criticism for doing so. "The last thing wildlife needs is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall encouraging diners without principles to treat the rest of the world as a larder," said conservationist Justin Kerswell, with the U.K. group Viva!
Seeing as how the meat has so little to recommend it aside from Fearnley-Whittingstall's five-year-old comment and carries such a high risk of being harvested unethically, it's probably best to leave giraffe-eating to lions in the wild.