Cheetah - Acinonyx jubatus

IUCN Red List status - Vulnerable

The cheetah is a fascinating cat species. Although taller than the leopards, they are much slimmer in their body build. Their body is build for speed. The cheetah is the fastest land mammal on the planet; reaching a maximum speed of up to 103km/h. The non-retractable claws and the harder paw pads are of great help for running at this kind of speed, and so is the tail, which acts almost like a rudder and helps keeping the balance.

Other characteristics of cheetahs are their spots, which are covering the entire body. These are visible in the fur, but are also on the skin. Like with other wildlife species the pattern of spots is unique to the individual cheetah
(like a finger print to us). The name cheetah was derived from the Hindi word Chita, which means 'the spotted one'.

Besides the spots the cheetah has also marks along the side of their noses, going from the corner of their eyes down to their mouths. The marks are often called tears.

Cheetahs were once common across most parts of the African continent and also in Asia from India to the northern shores of the Caspian Sea and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, including the Arabian Peninsula. They have however vanished from much of this historical range and occur only in about 10% of their historic African range and only in parts of the desert in Iran nowadays.

The total cheetah population in Africa is estimated to be less than 10,000 individuals. Estimates in countries, where studies were conducted, are around 6,700 adult and adolescent individuals. And it is not likely that populations in non-survey areas would add substantial numbers, which would lead to a total population exceeding 10,000. The general maximum population density of cheetahs in Africa is only 2.5 cheetahs per 100km2, and this is in the Serengeti National Park. The density may reach here up to 40 individuals per 100km2, but this is only seasonal and is not considered as a true indicator.

Like with all wildlife and predator species, the population density or the home range of the animals depends on food availability. This may also explain the variations in view of range size. In many areas the territory of cheetahs may be only around 30km2, while for example the home range in areas of farmland in Namibia is much larger
(though the cheetahs will only use up to 14% of this most intensely). The reasons for this has not be clarified as of now.

Interestingly, there are also difference in view of home ranges, depending on whether prey species are migratory or not. In areas with migratory prey, female cheetahs will follow the herds while males will set up a home range of up to 30km2 in areas that may be attractive to females.

Another difference to other cat species is the social behaviour of cheetahs. Females are solitary animals, meaning only when they have cubs or are mating they can be seen with other individuals. Males stay however most commonly in groups, called Coalitions. The cheetahs within a coalition are usually brothers, though inidividuals may join a coalition.

Two to eight cubs are born after a gestation period of around 3 months. The mortality rate of cheetah cubs is extremely high. It varies depending on area but is between 65% in some areas of southern Africa and 95% in the Serengeti. The main reason for the high death rate of cubs is predation by lions, hyenas and leopards, but also Jackals, honey badgers and secretary birds may feed on cheetah cubs.

The cheetah mum has to leave her cubs in a hidden place
(a lair) while she goes out hunting. Cheetah cubs have some longer hair from their neck down to the base of their tail, which helps them to blend in with long grass.

In many areas, including the Serengeti the cheetahs go hunting during day-time. This may be related to other predators being mainly out during night-time. In areas with less competitors like in areas of farmland of South Africa and the Sahara cheetahs hunt predominately at night-time. It is not confirmed whether this is related to the lack of other predator presence or an increased human activity.

Another difference to other cat species is that cheetahs are not known to scavenge. This may be as well be related to the presence of other predators and also scavengers like hyenas. Cheetahs use their high speed to hunt their prey, mainly smaller ungulate species like gazelles and impala. Once they have however eaten enough, they will leave the remains for other animals to feed on. A theory about this behaviour goes back to the risk the cheetahs are exposed to when larger predators or hyenas are attracted by the smell of the kill and move in. Even adult cheetahs could be killed by lions and leopards and cheetahs are very cautious; they will even abandon a freshly killed animal if other predators approach
(and they lose at least 10% of their kill through this).

The lack of scavenging may be a reason why cheetahs are less affected by poisoning, which affects many other predator species like lions and leopards, who feed on abandoned carcasses.

Although cheetahs are generally classified as vulnerable by the IUCN
(International Union for Conservation of Nature) some of the 5 recognised subspecies are considered as Critically Endangered. This includes the Asian cheetah and the subspecies found in north-west Africa.

Cheetahs are completely extinct in Malawi, Western Sahara, Senegal, Nigeria, Mauritania, Tunesia, Guinea, Ivory Cost, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and all countries in Asia, except the Iran.

Especially in Asia, the disappearance is mainly linked to the capture of live cheetahs to keep as a pet or to use to hunt gazelles and deer as a sport. Other threats to the cheetah include the depletion of prey, habitat loss and fragmentations as well as retaliation killings in the human/wildlife conflict.

Cheetahs are still captured for the pet trade, mainly for Arabian countries and predominately in Eastern Africa, from where the are exported via Somalia. This is illegal, but unfortunately very much going on. And so is unfortunately also the killing of cheetahs for their fur.

Habitat loss and fragmentation has however an at least equal impact on the remaining cheetah population, and this in not only through the expanding human populations and ever growing farming industry, but now increasingly also through extraction of resources like oil and the related infrastructure, including pipelines, roads and railways. And through the decreasing habitat areas and also prey, cheetahs will resort to feeding of livestock, which in turn leads to farmers killing them.

Other threats include injuries and killing through snares. Although cheetahs are not target species for the bushmeat trade, they are however caught in snares. Furthermore, cheetahs are getting also frequently killed in road traffic collisions, especially on high-speed roads like the Mombasa-Nairobi road, but also on unsealed roads in the Serengeti.

And last, but not least tourism has a an impact on cheetahs if irresponsible organisers interfere with a cheetah's hunt, scare them away from their kill, separate them from their cubs or even chase them into areas, where hyenas or larger predator species are. Tourism is important and has an important role in wildlife conservation, but there are unfortunately incidents, which may threaten wildlife and with endangered species even more than just individual animals.

The information about cheetahs was sourced from the IUCN and the Cheetah Conservation Fund web pages.