The tragic story of the disappearing giraffes

Le jardin zoologique de Prague

Thirty-one years ago last weekend, in the small Czech town of Dvur Kralove, a whole herd of giraffes was shot. Nobody was ever told why. This sounds like the opening of a Kafka novel, but it is a real event, and one that came to fascinate the British journalist JM Ledgard so much that he wrote a novel on the subject. David Vaughan reports.

At the height of communist rule the charismatic director of the zoo in Dvur Kralove, Josef Vagner traveled to Kenya and came back with an entire herd of giraffes. It is strange to imagine these exotic and elegant creatures sailing up the Elbe River to chilly Czechoslovakia at the end of their epic journey, and certainly the idea captured the imagination of JM Ledgard, until recently working as a journalist in Prague. He decided to investigate the story, which turned out to be full of Cold War intrigue and symbolism.

At first the giraffes seemed to thrive; they bred and became the largest herd ever to be kept in captivity. Suddenly, in early April 1975, the zoo was sealed off by the police, and by the end of the month, the entire heard had disappeared. On a phone line from Kenya, where he now lives, JM Ledgard picks up the story.

"The Czechoslovakian state, all the way up to the level of the Politburo, made it a state secret. So these giraffes were literally deemed not to exist any more. They were all of them shot, twenty-three of them were pregnant at the time, and they were literally liquidated."

Amid all this secrecy, various conspiracy theories developed about what could have happened. Talking to now long retired veterinary surgeons and secret police officers, Ledgard unraveled the version most likely to be true - that the giraffes had picked up some virulent form of foot and mouth.

"Obviously this would have had devastating economic consequences. In true communist fashion they decided to lie and ruin various people's lives to cover up the whole incident. And the interesting thing today is that still the Czech state has not come clean on the incident. My hope is - on the anniversary - that the Czech government will finally tell the zoo in Dvur Kralove, why the giraffes were killed, because, incredibly, every year since 1975, the zoo director had asked the Czech government, 'Why did you kill the larges herd of giraffes ever assembled anywhere in the world and yet I have yet to receive a single document in writing?'"

Ledgard's book, called simply "Giraffe", is not just journalism. He is a self-confesssed zoo fetishist with literary ambitions, and the book is a haunting and poetic account - narrated in part from the giraffe's own point of view - of how far human folly and vanity can go, in tandem with a political system that is both closed and inhumane.