As Africa’s most endangered cat, the cheetah is mostly found in eastern and southern Africa (and in a few parts of Iran). It is estimated that only 7,000 cheetahs remain in existence today. 50% of the population lives in southern Africa.
As the world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah is capable of reaching speeds over 110 km/hr in just over 3 seconds. At top speed, each stride is 7 meters long and their paws only touch the ground twice during each stride. But it can only maintain this speed for a short spurt, so they have to catch their prey very quickly.
Cheetahs have “tear marks” that run from the inside corners of their eyes down to the outside edges of their mouth. These marks help reflect the glare of the sun during the day…just like the black marks on the faces of football players.
With a small rounded head, slender body, flexible spine, long legs and a long spotted tail, it is quite different from all other cats and is the only member of its genus, Acinonyx. Specialized muscles allow for a greater mobility to increase acceleration.
The cheetah has a long, muscular tail that has a flat shape. The tail functions like a rudder on a boat and is used to help control the cheetah’s balance and direction when running very fast.
A cheetah’s foot pads are hard and less rounded than the other cats. The pads and short, blunt claws – considered semi-retractable – function like tire treads providing increased traction for fast, sharp turns.
Cheetahs reach 70 – 90 centimeters at the shoulder, and weigh 21 – 72 kg.
The cheetah has a coat that is yellowish tan to greyish white, and is covered with approximately 2,000 solid black spots. Every cheetah has a unique spot pattern.
Photo: Martine Coret
A litter varies from 2 to 8 cubs, but cubs are often the target of other predators and many do not survive past the first year. As the mother cares for her cubs by herself, she alone must ensure that the cubs are fed, protected from predators, and taught skills they will need to hunt and survive in the wild.
Until about three months, cheetah cubs have a thick silvery-grey mantle running down their back. The mantle camouflages the cubs by imitating the look of an aggressive animal called a honey badger (below). This mimicry may help deter predators such as lions, hyenas, and eagles from attempting to kill cheetahs.
There are five main sub-species of cheetahs: Southern African, East African, Northwest African, Northeast African and Asiatic. Each has similar genetics and similar markings, with the exception of the King Cheetah. This striking cheetah has a rare mutation and has cream-coloured fur, big dark spots and three wide dark stripes from neck to tail.
Unlike many other cat species, cheetahs are diurnal, and hunt during the day. Their remarkable eyesight and speed help them to pursue prey, often observed from afar. A naturally alert animal, the cheetah is likely to scour the horizon, even while resting. Cheetah move in very large ranges, and while they often have a home base, their movement can be extensive, especially if they are facing threats. Cheetahs, especially the males, are sociable and stay together in ‘coalition”. Pregnant or nursing females are solitary, and become the sole parent involved in raising young cubs. Mother cheetah will stay with their cubs until they mature and seek their own territories.
Males are territorial, while females are not. While males will mark their territory, mostly by urination, as a message to other males, they also select territories that ensure the best access to females.
Rainbow and Aurora are well-known by Canadians of all ages. Both cheetahs were orphaned at a young age within months of each other. Losing their mothers at such an early age means these two cheetahs won’t be able to fully develop their natural instincts and survival skills to survive in the wild. However, the very diligent care at CCF has ensured that both of them are healthy and that their care and feeding approximate as much as possible a cheetah’s existence in the wild. Learn more about Rainbow and Aurora.