According to the IUCN, Cheetah are classified as vulnerable with the numbers declining. The King Cheetah is extinct in the wild.
The cheetah formerly ranged throughout Africa, except the equatorial forests and desert, as well as South East India. The cheetah became extinct in India in the early 1950s, and is extremely rare elsewhere.
DESCRIPTION: The word cheetah is derived from the Sanskrit word “citrakayah” meaning “variegated body”, via the Hindi “cita”. The cheetah is tall and slender, with long legs and a short muzzle with a rounded head. The body is a pale, off-white colour and is dotted with black, rounded spots. Dark tear marks on the face serve to reflect sunlight out of the eyes, enabling them to see more clearly and to see further – aiding in hunting.
It has an average of 2 000 black spots. These spots are made out of longer, finer fur than the rest of the coat. This ensures that the outline of the animal is broken to allow enhanced camouflage within the environment.
Like normal cheetahs, king cheetahs (Acinonyx jabatus rex) also have tall and slim bodies. Although they look similar, the king cheetah has a fur pattern mutation (caused by lack of genetic diversity) which results in its large connected black patches – differing from the smaller and more plentiful spots found on the common cheetah.
The cheetah is the fastest land mammal, and can reach speeds of up to 112 km/h (69 miles per hour). Adaptations that enable the cheetah to run so fast include large nostrils for optimum oxygen intake and enlarged heart and lungs that work together to circulate oxygen efficiently. During chase, the cat’s respiratory rate goes from 60 to 150 breaths per minute.
Though it is definitely a felid, the cheetah (the only of the cat species) is sometimes considered to be dog-like because of its semi-retractable claws. Only the dew claw, situated higher up on the leg and acting like a thumb, can retract. These claws are unsheathed and will appear to be permanently protruding. This type of adaptation will assist in traction during the chase.
Different to other cats, the cheetah’s tail is flattened, and will act as a rudder to steer it when running. The anatomy of a cheetah shows that the collar bone is reduced, enabling it to have longer strides, and consequently to run faster.
Cheetahs are diurnal animals, meaning that they are active and hunt during day time.
COMMUNICATION: Mainly high-pitched chirping calls, marking territory through urine or saliva (through cheek rubbing).
SOCIAL STRUCTURE: Female cheetahs are solitary, unless when raising young where mothers usually stay close together, otherwise they only come into contact with other cheetahs when mating. Males will however form coalitions (mostly between brothers) of about 2 to 3 to defend more territory. They are not territorial towards each other but are towards other male coalitions.
MALE: Male cheetahs are slightly larger than the female. This is especially visible at its head, as it is slightly bigger and more rounded. They can be found in small groups (average three individuals per group) called coalitions. Coalitions are formed by males in order to defend a larger territory and to fend off other males.
FEMALE: Female cheetahs are attentive mothers. They will move their cubs one at a time on a regular basis to prevent any detection or parasite infection. On average, the female cheetah will give birth to 3 to 5 cubs per litter. They do not establish territories but do occupy home ranges of approximately 1 500 km2 (932 sq. mile).
YOUNG: Cheetah cubs are born blind and helpless, with a weight of 150 – 350 grams and up to 30 cm (11,8 inches) long. Food will be provided for the cubs by the mother up to the age of 3 months when they will be fully weaned. Cubs join in on hunts from the age of 8 months. At the age of 18 months, cheetah cubs will gain independence from their mother and will travel vast distances in search of their own territories.
REPRODUCTION: The average gestation period of a cheetah is between 90 and 95 days. The age of maturity in female cheetahs is between 20 and 24 months, while for males it is between 24 and 36 months. Approximately 1 to 2 weeks before the female is ready to mate, she will produce urine and faecal matter with a high reproductive hormone content and a scent that attracts males. Cheetah typically breed every 18 months, but litters can be conceived as often as every 15 to 19 months.
TRACKS AND SIGNS: Cheetahs’ claws do not retract and remain exposed. Their claws protract with every step in order to assist with grip. The ridges on the pads allow efficient movement by preventing slipping. They have digitigrade foot posture, where the heel and instep are raised so that only the digits touch the ground.
HABITAT: Cheetahs can be found in open plains, woodland, savanna, scrub-savanna, highlands up to 2 000 m (6 561 feet) above sea level as well as arid regions extending to desert fringes. Over and above terrain and vegetation, their habitat is determined by the abundance of food and lack of large predators. An optimum habitat will include cover in the form of bushes, medium-length grass, trees and broken ground though they can survive on dry, open plains – such as parts of the Serengeti.
HUNTING TECHNIQUE: Cheetahs (the fastest land animals) use their speed to catch prey. Their bodies are especially designed for reaching top speeds of about 112 km/h (69,5 m/h). They have non-retractable claws, tough pads on their feet, their long tails assist with steering, and they have light bones as well as oversized organs such as lungs and heart in order to allow for their high speeds and efficient movement. They also have binocular vision, allowing them to rely more on sight than scent when hunting. The dark tear marks assist with this too. They are solitary diurnal hunters, except when in a coalition, when they will hunt together and attempt to capture larger prey. Once prey has been captured and depending on its size, the cheetah suffocates it by biting at the neck. They often eat quickly after a kill because they are unable to fight off other predators, especially if they are larger.
THREATS: Although the cheetah faces many problems with competition for food among other predators, the primary reason for the decline in numbers is the loss of habitat due to the ever developing human population. Larger predators like the lion, leopard and hyena act as natural enemies due to their larger size and increased power not possessed in the cheetah.
THE ROLE HESC PLAYS IN THE CONSERVATION OF THIS SPECIES: HESC’s main objective is to release as many cheetah back to the wild where they belong. There is however another big challenge when considering cheetah populations, and that is the limited diversity in cheetah genetics. An establishment like HESC is of utmost importance, as it is in this controlled environment where the cheetah can be bred in order to diversify the species’ genes as much as possible. The release of captive-bred cheetahs into the wild has proven to be a success.
HESC will continue to do everything in its power to ensure the cheetah’s future.
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