Zarafa by Michael Allin Headline 215pp, £12.99 in UK

Zarafa is the Arabic word from which European languages got the word giraffe; it means charming or lovely one. This fascinating book tells the life story of one giraffe brought from the highlands of Ethiopia to Paris in the early 19th century, where she caused a sensation and gave rise to unbelievable zarafamania. Women wore their hair so high in imitation that they had to sit on the floor of their carriages; men wore tall giraffic hats; streets were called after the elegant visitor. She was a gift from the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt to the king of France at a time when exotic animals were sent as presents or bribes to western monarchs. For the person who has everything what else can you give but a giraffe, a lion, a leopard or a bear? A rhinoceros to the Pope from the king of Portugal; an elephant for the king of Savoy; a pair of antelopes for the king of France.

Michael Allin, a young Californian graduate, fell under the spell of Zarafa, and his book recounts not alone her journey from the Blue Nile to Marseilles and her walk from there to Paris, but also sets the odyssey in its historical context. It was a quixotic event, the result of a web of history that turns chaos theory on its head. It is said that the fluttering of a butterfly's wing in China can cause a hurricane later in North America. Conversely, in this case, the turmoil of 19th-century European history and Ottoman Empire wars, slave trade, piracy on the great caravan routes of Africa and innumerable other intrigues, culminated in the gentle and careful transfer of a giraffe calf from Ethiopia to Le Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman governor of Egypt, admired European culture and it was said that under him the country went from the Stone Age to the Enlightenment. His adviser and fixer was Bernardino Drovetti, the French consul in Egypt (described by Allin as a cultured pirate), who forged a link between the two countries.

Drovetti at first plundered the graves of Egypt for European collectors, and traded in wild animals. Later in his career he helped the savants of France to study the ancient remains and develop the science of Egyptology. It was Drovetti who arranged the transfer of Zafara. The giraffe was first transported by felucca along a slave route 2,000 miles down the Nile to Alexandria. She was accompanied by another giraffe calf in poor condition and several Egyptian cows to provide them with milk. From Alexandria, at a cost of 4,500 francs, she was shipped by Sardinian brigantine to Marseilles, where she remained for seven months to winter and recover from her journey. From there she walked the 550 miles to Paris, a triumphal journey with hordes of admirers turning out in every village, town and city on the route. Michael Allin has a feeling for geography and landscape that brings a map to life. But his book is not just an account of this journey. He tells, with the immediacy of reportage, of the changing fortunes of Egypt, of Alexandria, and the commerce and culture of several ancient civilisations. Horrifying to today's readers, he describes the barbaric traffic in African animals in the time of Julius Caesar when the first giraffes, lions and elephants were brought to Europe to slaughter each other as a circus spectacle in the Coliseum. He tells also of the subsequent revenge slaughter in Rome of the elephants that routed the Roman soldiers at the Pyrrhic battle of Tarentum. Zarafa lived for almost twenty years in Paris, feted and celebrated. She was stuffed when she died in 1845 and can now be seen on the landing of a staircase in the Musee La Faille in La Rochelle.