Cheetah – Acinonyx Jubatus
The cheetah will always be a cat that I hold in high regard. It all started during the eighties when I watched nature documentaries from the plains of East Africa dreaming of documenting the African wildlife myself. One of the stars in these shows was the fastest land mammal on Earth, the cheetah. It might not be the most beautiful cat, but it is a cat that is hard to not like. I know that many will disagree with me now, but I am more thrilled finding a cheetah than a lion in the wild.
They are the only diurnal big cat in Africa. One of the main reasons behind this is to have less competition for food. They certainly lose kills to larger predators and they might even retreat if vultures start to descend as they often bring unwanted attention. Still the number of lost kills is not as high as you might think. It is probably only around 10% which is far from the “truths” of the documentaries in the past. It is another of the old myths like the misconception of the spotted hyena only being a scavenger.
The life of a Cheetah is not easy. They are the most reproductive cat with an average litter of 3-4 cubs. Sadly 90% of the cubs will never reach an age of 3 months as they either fall victim to other predators or die due to lack of genetic diversity resulting in a weak immune system. This is the sad reality and two reasons why they are classed as Vulnerable. They are even extinct in parts of its former distribution, like India, due to different factors with the most common denominator being us humans.
Cubs stay with their mother until an age of 17-23 months. Littermates tend to stay together when they leave their mother, but as soon as young females reach sexual maturity, they leave their littermates. Young females tend to stay close to their mother’s territory while young male travel far from their former home range when they are trying to establish their own territory.
Females live a solitary life when they leave their littermates while males often form coalitions. A cheetah coalition could be made up of brothers but might as well consist of individuals from different litters. A coalition improves everyone’s chance of survival as well as increasing their chance of passing their genes on, like a male lion coalition. Still there is a big difference between these coalitions. You will not see the same type of affection in a cheetah coalition that you see in a lion coalition. Social relations between cheetah males are more restrained and less affectionate.
Video: Cheetah mother with cub in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Like most cats they are gorgeous as cubs. In my opinion a cheetah cub might be the cutest of the big cat cubs in Africa, just watch the video above. They have a thick silvery-grey mantle that start to disappear at the age of three months. The mantle is a mimicry as it imitates the look of a honey badger, a small and fearsome animal that even bigger predators might shy away from. When the mantle disappears, a mane is left, and it will still be visible at 2 years of age.
A highly specialized cat
Speed. That is the first thing that springs to mind when I think of a cheetah. I assume it is the same for most people as this cat clearly has evolved with speed in mind.
A cheetah is an elegant cat built with long legs, narrow waist and a large chest. Their claws are unsheathed, and the long fluffy tail assist the cat during hunts. The head is kept at the same level while pursuing prey which is beautiful captured in this video. It is sensory hairs in liquified ear canals, in the inner ear, that assist the cheetah with keeping its head levelled during the hunt.
The stride length of a cheetah at full speed is often between 7 and 8 meters. This is achieved with help of a very flexible spine and all four paws are in the air for over half the time. A chase is seldom done without twists and turns and without the long tail balancing the cat they would trip over.
There is a huge difference between the cheetah and their dog counterpart the greyhound. This difference is stamina. A cheetah will seldom run for more than 300 meters as the breathing rate goes up to 150 a minute, temperature soars and it must cool down for 30 minutes before next attempt. A greyhound is not nearly as fast as a cheetah that can sprint at over 110 kph, but they have the stamina to run at over 50 kph for 10km.
Stealth is still required
Stealth is still something a cheetah depend upon while hunting. They want to get within sprinting distance, 50 meters or less, and use available cover whenever possible. Once they get within range, often flight seems to trigger the pursuit. Animals that stand their ground may well not be chased and that is probably due to the fact the cheetah hunt by tripping their prey. It is easier for a cheetah to unbalance its quarry when it is running harder as they strike the back. When the victim crashes to the ground they lunge for the throat using both legs and weight to hold the struggling animal down. This struggle is normally over in 4.5 minutes once they have a firm grip.
The success rate is as high as 50% making them the most successful big cat in Africa. Their average speed during a hunt is only 70 kph which might be lower than most anticipated. It probably shows that they need acceleration more than top speed as their prey twist and turns to try and outmanoeuvre them.
Video: A day with a Cheetah family in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
They are vulnerable
Sadly, the cheetah is globally classed as vulnerable. I will not delve into why, but I will instead assist you in getting more info in the matter.
There are still a few strongholds for the cheetah and the one most people speak about is Namibia. In Namibia you find Cheetah Conservation Fund who actively work with saving the species. If you have an interest in knowing more about the species, donate money, get info about volunteering then check out their page. You find many in-depth articles, research material etc so if you are interested this is a great place to spend some time.
If you want to know more about CITES and their work concerning the cheetah, then go here. It is not the easiest material to go through, but it will help you grasp the illegal trade with wildlife and in this instance the cheetah.
I hope I have shared some of my passion about this specialized cat. A cat I hope we will continue to live together with on this planet we both call home.