Maasai giraffes walk in Serengeti National Park, west of Arusha, northern Tanzania.

In Kenya, trees and giraffes hold an agreement: 'Do not harm me'

Healthy ecosystems tend to seek balance. In the highlands of Kenya, this dynamic plays out in a tacit agreement between giraffes and their leafy diet.

Living on Earth

In this file photo dated Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015, Maasai giraffes walk in Serengeti National Park, west of Arusha, northern Tanzania.

Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP, FILE

At a grove of commiphora trees, giraffe are grazing.

They will eat acacia, also, but commiphora have no thorns. They reach their necks into the rooftop of the grove.

The day is cool and light.

Lean and languid, giraffe move about. Their movements are softness, the patination of their skin — concentric watery shapes like ripples in daubed paint, white to light ochre to a center of raw umber, as tempting to the eye as puddles to a child. All eyes are drawn to them.

They are vibrant and alive and as apparent as a forest. Even behind a specter of branches, tangled and dark, they cannot pretend to hide. But at a distance, at the edge of the woods, passing through sun and shade, it is impossible to tell if the herd is in among the trees or in front.

How far is also confusing. And with their long legs and long stride, how fast. Exactly the things a predator watching needs to know. And, not knowing, more often than not, will leave them alone.

A giraffe extends her blackberry-ice-cream tongue, as dexterous as index and thumb. It wraps around a stem high in the crown. The leaves rustle. She draws them into her wrinkled mouth, her face furred and furrowed. She is not young and the leaves are sweet to her.

And yet she will not stay.

She will not eat only of this one tree, nor continue in this single place. None of them will, not long enough to nourish, much less to staunch their hunger. Because, tree and giraffe hold an agreement: "Do not harm me."

The tree bitten to the quick will make itself bitter as bile and send a warning through the air, an invisible semaphore, too thin to be detected except by other trees, downwind, who will sense and heed the warning; and then they, too, will make themselves impossible to eat. So, giraffe refrain.

The leaves of the grove are plump and green and good, which makes for a movable feast, and for the tree, means not being brought to grief, but only a pruning. Perhaps this is what the tree needs, for the sake of the thick new growth that will come. Or if not needs, at least endures, at no great price.

And so each kind, giraffe and tree, can and will continue.

This article was written by Adam Wernick and originally appeared as an audio essay on Living on Earth from PRX.