The sleek cheetah has many adaptations that help make it the world’s fastest land animal. It has a lean body, with a small head and long legs. Its non-retractable claws give it a strong grip on the ground. Its body is about four feet long, not including its tail, which can reach three feet. When running at high speed, the long tail assists balance changing direction. Cheetahs stand over three feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 75 to 125 pounds. Males are larger than females. The cheetah’s top speed ranges from 55 to 70 miles per hour, but only for a maximum of 400 yards. Its face is marked with dark lines that run from the inside corners of its eyes to the outside corners of its mouth, while its coat is yellowish-gray with pale black spots. Its canine teeth are small relative to those in other felids, a reduction in the size of the roots of the upper canines that allows a larger nasal aperture for increased air intake that is critical for allowing the cheetah to recover from its sprint while it suffocates its prey.
Range: Cheetahs are most abundant in east and southern Africa, with a large population in the farmlands south of the Etosha region of Namibia and in the Serengeti ecosystem of Kenya and Tanzania. Lower numbers still occur in parts of sub-Saharan Africa but burgeoning human populations have heavily degraded their habitat. A remnant population is also found in Iran adjoining parts of Pakistan, and possibly, in Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.
Habitat: Cheetahs are adapted for life on grassy plains or savannas but also make extensive use of bush, scrub and open woodlands. Observations suggest they expend more energy hunting in open country than in cover. Unlike other felids, they hunt primarily during the day.
Diet: Cheetahs mainly prey on gazelles and small antelopes that they bring down after a spectacular high-speed chase. They also feed on larger antelopes or hares when gazelles are scarce. In southern Africa cheetahs also prey on calves and other small domestic livestock, and in Iran and northern Africa, young camels are also targeted. Because of their relatively small size in comparison to other large predators in Africa, cheetahs commonly lose 50% of their prey to lions, hyenas and leopards. Cheetahs are well adapted to living in arid environments and are not obligate drinkers. They appear able to satisfy their moisture requirements from their preys blood and urine or by eating tsama melons.
Social Organization: Cheetahs are usually solitary hunters that come together only to breed. Males, related or unrelated, may form lifelong coalitions of two or three individuals. In areas where more powerful predators have been eradicated, groups as large 10- 14 animals (including cubs) have been reported. Females usually have two to six cubs after a gestation of 89-93 days. The young become independent in two years. While young, cubs have a long, silver mane that may help them resemble the honey badger, an aggressive member of the mustelid family, which has few enemies due to its ferocious nature. Because other carnivores – lions, hyenas, and leopards – commonly prey upon young, their large litter size may help compensate for infant loss through predation. Female cheetahs maintain a home range that is several times larger than of males.
Legal Status: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the cheetah as an Endangered Species. It is protected under CITES, Appendix I which bans international commerce but quotas for trophies are provided to Namibia (150) and Zimbabwe (50). In the IUCN Red List, cheetahs are listed as a Vulnerable species. There are an estimated 9,000 – 12,000 cheetahs in the wild, with the largest population (2,500) being found in Namibia.
Threats to Survival: The primary threat to cheetahs is loss of habitat due to human settlement and agriculture. They are also persecuted as livestock predators and in the past, for zoos and the pet trade as well as killed for pelts. Male cheetahs also have an unusually high level of deformed sperm cells, a factor that may be related to lack of genetic variation. In North Africa and Iran, severe depletion of the prey base has brought cheetahs to near extinction.
History in Zoos: Cheetahs were kept by humans at least as early as 3000 BC. They were kept as hunting animals by wealthy Sumerians in Babylon (Iran). Later, the Mongol emperor, Akbar, The Great, kept 1,000 cheetahs for hunting in 1300 AD, all of which were acquired from the wild as adults. During the first 4,000 years that cheetahs have been kept by humans, there was only one recorded birth: in the 17th century cheetahs kept by the Moghul Emperor, Akbar, in India, unexpectedly mated and produced young. The earliest record of a cheetah exhibited in a zoo is in 1829 at the Zoological Society of London but the animal did not live to reach one year of age. Cheetahs were first exhibited in North America in 1871 at Central Park Zoo, NY. By 1954, 139 cheetahs were exhibited in 47 facilities in Europe and North America but most did not live more than one year and there were no captive births. Between 1955 and 1994, 1,440 cheetahs were imported to zoological institutions worldwide from the wild. In 1956, the first captive birth took place at the Philadelphia Zoo. The pair produced another litter two years later. Since then captive breeding has increased the founder population to 116 animals, the onset of CITES preventing frequent international trade from the wild. Approximately 90% of the captive cheetah population is descendant from populations in Namibia.