Yongle was the third emperor of the Ming dynasty in China (1402–1424), and under him a Chinese fleet went around the world in what was certainly the most dramatic burst of exploration in the medieval times. The fleet, under Admiral Zheng He, brought back plants and animals from across the globe, but the one specimen that held the emperor spellbound was that of a giraffe.
Funnily, Zheng He got the giraffe not from Africa but from Bengal, from a bunch of Kenyan ambassadors. The Kenyans had brought the animal along as a trade tribute. They gave it to Zheng He, who took it back to the Chinese court. Everyone in China thought the giraffe was the mythical qilin, a Chinese unicorn. There were pictures painted of the giraffe and it became the toast of the Ming court.
Yongle was used to exotic pets – in his special park he had bear cubs from Siam (modern-day Thailand), rhinos from Champa (modern-day Vietnam), and parrots and peacocks from Java. But the giraffe surpassed all of them in importance!
(Excerpted from The Blue Horse and Other Amazing Animals from Indian History by Nandini Sengupta, published by Hachette India)