The Wild Cats of South Africa – The Cheetah

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Common Name: Cheetah

Scientific Name: Acinonyx jubatus

The word “Cheetah” is derived from the Hindi word ” Chita ” meaning “spotted one”. The Cheetah is the fastest land animal reaching speeds of 45 – 70 mph.  The Cheetah has also been known to swim, although they do not like to. Read more interesting Cheetah Facts below.

Common Name : Cheetah

Scientific Name : Acinonyx jubatus

Kingdom: Animal

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivore

Family: Felidae Subfamily: Acinonychinae Genus: Acinonyx Species: Jubatus Afrikaans: Jagluiperd Xhosa: Ihlosi

The Cheetah is the fastest mammals on land. They can run up to 120km per hour, but only for very short periods. They are specially adapted for speed, having light frames, long powerful tails and non-retractable claws which act like athletes spikes. There are less than 15000 Cheetah left and they have reached the brink of extinction twice in their history.

The Cheetah is not one of the Great Cats, because it does not have a floating Hyoid bone in its neck it can not roar, therefore it is classified as a Lesser Cat. Cheetahs have been considered through out history to be a sleek and beautiful cat.

Cheetahs have been in captivity for over 5,000 years and were first tamed by the Sumarians. By far the Cheetah has been considered the easiest of the exotic cats to tame. The Cheetah was used as hunting partners for sport in Asia prior to Assyrian Dynasty in Libia, during the reign of the Pharaohs. Their keen eyesight played a major role, which aided in the hunt.

Cheetahs have also been pets to many people dating back to such historical figures as Gengis Khan, Akbar the Great of India and Mogul Emperor. Akbar (1555-1600 AD) had a collection of an estimated 6,000 Cheetah, which only produced one litter each year. 25% of Cheetah in captivity will breed more than once. This along with several other studies has proven the Cheetah does not breed well in captivity.




Many of the isolated wild populations of Cheetah are already genetically extinct even though there are still animals on the ground.

Habitat: The Cheetah prefers to live in open grasslands, savannas, dense vegetation and sometimes even mountainous terrain. The open land of grasslands and semi-desert better accommodates the Cheetahs way of hunting, which is running as opposed to the stalk and pounce method. Namibia is home to the largest population of Cheetah at about 2,500 cats. Due to the continuous growth of farmland and expanding development 95% of the Namibian Cheetah live on cultivated farmland.

Distribution: The Cheetah was once widely distributed throughout Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Asia Minor and even East of India. Fossils were recorded to be found from China, Northern India, Southern Europe and as far as the Western United States . Sadly now the species is burning out and can be found sparsely scattered amongst Namibia, Kenya, Asia, as well as a handful of other small countries.


The black stripes, or tear-lines on the cheetahs face absorb the glare of the sun allowing them to see better during the day for hunting


Sub-species: The Asiatic Cheetah-Acinonyx venaticus, was hunted to near extinction by the European and Asian royalty. Their beautiful pelt was a symbol of wealth and was worn proudly. Although the pelt was not coveted as that of the Leopard, these cats were almost completely destroyed. Today only an estimated 200 of this sub-species exist in small isolated groups scattered throughout Eastern Iran .

The King Cheetah was once considered it own species, however now it has been proven to be nothing more than a genetic mutation. King Cheetah originated from Central Africa, where they were used for hunting. These Cheetah were part of a breeding program to acquire genetic mutations, such as fur patterns, size, and rare and unusual color forms, with no regard to the genetic integrity of the species. This African Cheetah can only be found naturally in Zimbabwe and South Africa’s Transvaal Province providing that both of the parents carry the recessive gene.

Appearance: The Cheetah is a tall and elegant cat in appearance. Large chest, narrow waist, long thin legs and a slim well muscled build this animal was definitely made for speed. The Cheetahs coat varies from a tawny to golden tone covered in a pattern of solid black spots averaging .75″-1.5″ in diameter. The Cheetahs beautiful pelt became more protected in 1970, when the fur trade regulations were strengthened. The fur is coarse to the touch not silky as it appears. The Cheetah’s long thick tail has spots, which turn into rings and at the end is tipped with white. The throat and abdomen are a creamy white in color. The Cheetah has a small head with high set eyes and short rounded ears tipped with white on the back. The most well known characteristic is however the distinct black “tear mark”, which runs from the inside corner of the eye down to the corner of the mouth.

Cubs are born with a mantle of fur running from the back of the neck down to the rump. This clever disguise aids in camouflaging the kittens in the high grass while they are following their mother. This mane like feature begins to disappear at the age of 3 months, but still remains visible at 2 years of age. The fur color of a newborn cub is medium gray, which gradually evolves into the adult colors by the age of 4 months.

The King Cheetah has a fur pattern mutation, which turned the small rounded spots into large connected black patches. This mutation is caused from a lack of genetic diversity.

Size: The Cheetah weighs an average of 83-145 lbs., making them about the same weight as that of a leopard. The length of a Cheetah is approximately 70″-86″ from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail. Being an extremely tall cat the Cheetah stands at an average of 32″ tall.

Newborn cubs weigh an average of 5.25-10.5 oz. The body length of a cub is approximately 11.8″, which may vary.

Reproduction: The Cheetah above all else is the most reproductive cat. Why then is it so endangered? The answer is two-fold. Cheetah cubs often fall prey to Lions, Jackals, Birds of Prey and Hyenas, as the mother must leave them behind while hunting for food. Even if the mother was near, she could not fend off an animal as large as a Lion or Hyena, the Cheetah was built for running not fighting. 90% of Cheetahs born die with in the first 3 months, 50% of which are destroyed by predators. The other 40% fall victim to lack of genetic diversity. This is the second reason for their inability to survive. This genetic peril is responsible for weak and underdeveloped immune systems. Disease and illness attack a weak immune system, which in turn causes death. Most cubs do not even make it past 1 month old when this is the case.

After a gestation period of 90-95 days a female Cheetah will give birth to a litter of 3-5 cubs. The largest litter recorded in captivity was 8. The male Cheetah does not participate in the rearing of the cubs. The mother may leave the cubs for as long as 48 hours in order to hunt for enough food to sustain her in a lactating state. If the food supply is too scarce the mother may abandon the cubs, so as to maintain her way of life. Also if the litter is lost with in the first few weeks the female will come into estrus in the next few days. If this is not the case the mother will return and move the cubs from one location to another to better hide the smell of her young from predators. Sometimes the mother will even wait until night falls to return to her cubs, so that she is not as easily followed.

Cubs: The cubs are usually weaned at 6-8 weeks and will then leave the den and follow the mother from then on. If a young cub loses its original family, due to some great misfortune, it will find another family and join them despite the ill will from the new mother and being out cast by the new brothers and sisters. At 5 months old, the cubs are playing with one another, sharpening their stalking, chasing, and wrestling skills in a playful manner. At 6 months the mother Cheetah will fetch live prey injuring it and then giving it to the cubs so they may practice the art of the kill. At 8 months the cubs are chasing inappropriately large prey such as Giraffes. A Cheetah will not be a very skilled and efficient hunter until about 3 years of age. Cheetah cubs kill less than 10% of the prey, which the family feeds on. At 15-24 months the cubs will leave the mother, but may stay together for several more months. Young females will leave her brothers when they reach sexual maturity. Young males will travel far from parents and will lay claim to a territory as large as 300-800 square miles. Young females will stay closer to home and may even overlap territory with the mother.

Social System: Female Cheetahs are solitary animals except when rearing a litter. Mothers with cubs will usually stay with in close proximity of one another. Females only come in contact with other Cheetahs in order to mate.

Males on the other hand will sometimes form coalitions of 2-3 in order to defend more land. These coalitions are mostly formed between brothers, but sometimes include outsiders. 30% of coalitions are unrelated. Males are not territorial towards each other, but are in fact towards other males or coalitions. Due to coalitions fighting against one another the ratio has dropped to one male for every two females.

Communication: Cheetahs communicate in many different ways. Some of these are through vocalizations such as purrs, bleats, barks, growls, hisses and a high pitched chirping sound. Another way to communicate is through marking. A Cheetah will mark their territory by urinating or by cheek and chin rubbing. Saliva that is secreted contains the same chemical information about the animals, as does the urine. Cheetahs will mark territory so that they can better avoid one another.

Hunting: The Cheetah is the fastest land animal, reaching a top speed of 70 mph! The Cheetah however can only run for short sprints of up to 300 yards. These sprints will usually last for 20 seconds, but rarely ever reach a full minute. Non-retractable claws and tough pads on their feet closely resemble that of a dog. These features offer better traction to get to those high speeds. A long heavy tail acts as a rudder for making those sharp turns while in pursuit. The Cheetah’s long fluid body is set over extremely light bones, this accompanied with large nasal passages, and oversized lungs, liver, heart and adrenals enable rapid physical response. This response is imperative to accommodate the Cheetah’s way of hunting. A strong spring-like spine gives added reach to the Cheetah’s long legs. A stride is the measured distance between successive imprints of the same paw. With the added reach given by the spine, 1 stride can stretch as far as 7-8 meters. The Cheetah averages 4 strides per second or 1 stride per .28 seconds and the horse averages 1 stride per .44 seconds and can reach top speeds of 43 mph. The Cheetah can out run the horse going from 0-45 mph in 2 seconds flat, though this will not very last very long. The horse would inevitably win in the long run.

Cheetahs are equipped with several special features that are crucial in successful and efficient hunting. Binocular vision is a very important asset since Cheetahs rely on sight to hunt as opposed to scent. The retinal fovea of the eye is of an elongated shape, giving a sharp wide-angle view. This aspect of the eye is also adapted for speed. The dark “tear marks” on the Cheetahs face reduce glare from the bright sun also and aid in excellent vision. The Cheetahs will perch upon a fallen tree or rocky ledge to scope out the surroundings and potential prey. The Cheetah is also a very vocal animal. With the ability to mimic the calls of some birds, by displaying a high pitched chirping sound. When a bird falls for this deceiving call it will also fall prey to the sly Cheetah.

The Cheetah is a carnivorous animal and a diurnal hunter, which means it hunts during the day usually early morning and late afternoon. Cheetahs are solitary hunters except when living in a coalition. When this is the case they will hunt in groups so that they can take down larger prey. Unlike the common misconception, the Cheetah will pick out animals that have strayed from the herd as a target, not necessarily the weak or old. After chasing down and catching the prey, the Cheetah suffocates larger animals with a bite to the jugular and holding for as long as 15-25 minutes. Smaller animals are killed with a quick bite to the head usually killing them instantly. By this time the Cheetah is so tired from the chase that it must wait for as long as a half hour before consuming its meal and could not fend off other predators, who might want to steal the Cheetah’s dinner. The Cheetah’s resting heart rate is approximately 120-170 beats per minute, while it’s heart rate after a chase is 200-250 beats per minute. The Cheetah’s resting breaths vary from 20-30 per minute depending on whether the Cheetah is in direct sunlight or in the shade, after a chase the Cheetah’s breaths per minute are 150-200! When done resting the Cheetah will quickly eat, as they can not defend their food from other predators for this reason they will not bury the food and come back for another meal. Half of the Cheetah’s hunts are successful, the other half are hard life lessons.

Diet: The Cheetah’s diet consists of a wide range of prey from steenbok, rabbits, wildebeest calves, duikers, kudu and impala to springbok, hartebeest, oryx, roan, sable, birds and warthog. The most preferred and most hunted by the cheetah however is the Thompson’s Gazelle. Something about these graceful animals just makes a Cheetah’s tummy roar! Cheetahs consume an average of 6-8 lbs. of food each day, and in some cases may go as long as 4-10 days with out water.

Extinction Is Forever: The Cheetah is considered Endangered in Appendix 1 to the Conservation Of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Humans have been proven to be the most feared predator by the Cheetah. Living space and adequate food supply is being robbed from these innocent creatures. Farmland is expanding into the Cheetah’s natural environment leaving the Cheetah to move on or be killed by paranoid farmers. A law was passed authorizing ranchers to shoot on sight any Cheetahs due to an alleged imposing threat to livestock. In 1980 alone ranchers killed a reported 6,829 Cheetahs. Poachers also pose a threat to the Cheetah, whose pelt was coveted and was doomed to become a fad. In the 1960’s 1,500 Cheetah pelts were imported each year into the United States due to an accessory fad. It was considered hip and a sign of wealth to wear a Cheetah fur. The number of Cheetahs has consistently dropped every year since 1900. In 1900 there were over 100,000 Cheetahs, in 1970 the numbers plummeted to 20,000-25,000 Cheetahs, and to this day there are only 10,000-15,000 Cheetahs. One tenth of which live in captivity. Due to the unavailability of land and food and the dangerous threat brought on by ranchers and poachers the Cheetah’s lifespan in the wild is 4-6 years, where as in captivity the Cheetah will live to 10-15 years old