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All about the cheetah: fun facts, why cheetahs are facing extinction and how you can help

By Jana Jansen van Vuuren 5 months ago
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Original photo: by Free-Photos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

If you have a passion for cats, or, in fact, fast cars, it’s likely you’ve read up a bit about the magnificent animal known as the cheetah. Quick, agile, and beautiful, these magnificent cats are the world’s fastest land animals.

In this article, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about the cheetah, including informative and fun facts about their survival and how you can help to conserve them by partnering with GVI.

First, some cheetah facts

How fast can a cheetah run?

The cheetah has a top speed of about 120 kilometres per hour. However, they are mainly sprinters and can only maintain this speed for short bursts of time.

What adaptations allow cheetahs to run so fast?

1) They have a lightweight, slender frame and weigh between 21 and 72 kilograms or 46 to 160 pounds.

2) Their respiratory and circulatory systems are designed for speed. Their heart, lungs, and nasal passages are much larger than you would expect for a cat their size.

 

 

3) In order to maintain their grip at high speed, a cheetah’s claws are semi-retractable. This also makes it easy to identify a cheetah’s pawprints because, unlike other cats, their prints will have telltale claw marks at the toes. 

4) It’s also interesting to note that they use their long fluffy tail for balance while hunting at high speeds.

 

The cheetah's paw prints are left in the sand.

The claw marks on these prints tell field guides that they were definitely made by a cheetah.

Where do cheetahs live?

About half of the world’s cheetah population can be found in southern Africa, in countries like Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. Cheetahs prefer dry, hot climates, but are not particularly fond of deserts or tropical areas.

That being said, a tiny population of cheetahs can be found in the Sahara desert. A cheetah’s preferred environment is an open area with some shrubbery cover, such as savannahs and nearby dry forests. 

What do cheetahs live in?

Cheetahs do not live in dens or burrows. They will often rest in tall grasses or under trees.

 

The cheetah can be found laying in tall grass.

Cheetahs can be found napping under trees, in tall grasses, on rocky outposts or hiding in the shrubbery.

What do cheetahs eat?

Cheetahs mostly target smaller antelope such as springbok and Thomson’s gazelles. They will also sometimes hunt larger antelope like kudu. Very seldom will you find them preying on much larger animals such as giraffes, buffalo, ostriches, and zebra.

What sounds do cheetahs make?

Cheetahs do not roar, but rather make a unique set of sounds that generations of researchers have been challenged to categorise formally. Some of the most easily distinguishable sounds include purring, a meow also known as a bleat and a bird-like chirping or high-pitched barking sound.

Mothers also use a unique set of sounds to communicate with their cubs. Like other cats, cheetahs also use smell to communicate, urinating at certain locations to let other cheetahs know that this is their home territory or, in the case of females, that they are looking for a mate.

Further reading: Four reasons why the environment needs elephants

 

The cheetah population is very important to wildlife.

What is a group of cheetahs called?

Cheetahs are the only wild cats, other than lions, that live in groups. These groups of cheetahs are known as “coalitions’” and are usually made up of a group of brothers. 

Female cheetahs that have cubs are usually solitary animals. However, if the female isn’t currently rearing cubs she might hang out with other cheetahs, most often her own brothers or sisters.

What are cheetah’s predators?

Technically cheetahs don’t have any predators in that they aren’t preyed upon by other animals. However, a large number of cheetah cubs are killed by other predators, such as lions.

The mortality rate of cheetah cubs is incredibly high, approximately 70%, and most of those fatalities are lion-related. 

Another contributing factor to the cheetah’s mortality rate threat is that their food is often stolen by other predators, like lions, leopards, and wild dogs, as well as scavengers, such as vultures and hyenas.

 

Volunteer to assist cheetah conservation.

What about cheetah babies?

Cheetah’s don’t have a seasonal fertility cycle, which means you have a chance of spotting a baby cheetah, or cheetah cub, at just about any time of the year. They take about three months to mature after conception and there are usually three to five cubs born in a single litter.

Like your average housecat, cheetah cubs are born blind and only start walking at around two weeks. They are born with a kind of “mohawk” of long downy hair running from the top of their head down their backs, which they start to lose as they grow up.

A cheetah mother moves her cubs to a new location every few days, to hide and protect them from lions in the area. Until the cubs are able to walk on their own the mother will move them by carrying each by the scruff of their neck.

As they grow up, she will use her tail and a series of specific sounds to guide them to their new home.

 

Cheetah cubs have mohawks along their backs.

Original photo: by skeeze is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Cheetah cubs will drink from their mother until they are about three to six months old, but start eating meat when they are between five and six weeks old. The mother will also bring them wounded, young or weak prey, so that they can practise their hunting skills.

It’ll take many months of practice before a young cheetah gets to secure a kill by itself. Most cubs will hang around with their mom until they are about a year or two years old and then gradually move away. 

What is a cheetah’s lifespan?

Cheetahs often live for 10 to 12 years in the wild.  They can survive up to 20 years in captivity. 

Are cheetahs friendly?

Cheetahs are not an active threat to humans and are rather docile. However, cheetahs are wild animals and you should never attempt to touch a wild cheetah, both for the safety of the cheetah and for your own personal well-being.

How many types of cheetahs are there?

The cheetah is the only species of its genus, Acinonyx. There are five subspecies, two of which, the Asiatic and Northwest African cheetah, are classified as critically endangered. 

The other three, the South African, Sudanese and Tanzanian cheetah have higher population numbers, which have declined in recent years.

Further reading: How to choose an ethical wildlife tour operator

Leopard vs cheetah: what’s the difference?

The cheetah can be identified by its teardrop marks.

 

They’re both spotted African cats, so it’s easy to get confused. Here are some of the main differences between leopards and cheetahs.

1) Cheetahs are taller than leopards but less stocky, and they have slighter frames.

2) Leopards have irregular black patches across their pelt, whereas cheetahs are uniformly covered with 2,000 black spots.

3) Cheetahs have unique black “teardrop” patterns running down the inner corners of their eyes towards their mouths. Leopards have no such markings.

 

A leopard lays in a tree.

 

4) As we’ve already noted, cheetahs don’t roar. Leopards, however, do roar.

5) Some cheetahs, like groups of males, form groups, but all leopards are solitary.

6) Cheetahs tend to have more cubs, about three to five, in a single litter than leopards do, who have about two to three.

7) Cheetahs are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, whereas leopards are nocturnal, meaning they are active at night.

8) Leopards like to climb and spend time in trees. A cheetah’s paws, claws, and ankles are designed for running at high speed, not climbing. 

This means you’re more likely to find cheetahs on the ground. That being said, cheetahs have been known to climb a tree every now and then, but, while a leopard can often be found napping in a tree, cheetahs will use trees as lookout posts.

 

Sometimes you'll find the odd cheetah in a tree.

 

9) Leopards use the element of surprise to secure a kill, pouncing on their prey from a perch high up in a tree or from a spot where they’ve been hiding in the tall grasses. Cheetahs use open spaces and their incredible speed to catch their prey.

10) Leopards store their larger kills in trees. Cheetahs, on the other hand, often abandon their larger kill to other predators or scavengers. This habit of abandoning their kill is what GVI wildlife conservation volunteers in South Africa are currently studying.

Further reading: 14 of the best travel conservation blogs to follow

 

A leopard eating in a tree.

A leopard feeding on a kill stored in a tree.

Now, some facts about cheetah endangerment

Are cheetahs endangered?

The Southern African cheetah is considered “vulnerable” and not “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

A group of researchers published a report in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America) in 2016, arguing that the conservation status of the cheetah should be changed to “endangered” due to the population decline.

Why are cheetahs endangered?

As the report from PNAS states, cheetah populations may be more vulnerable than previously thought. We’ve listed the five main reasons below.

1) Migration, habitat loss, and the colonisation of southern Africa lead to approximately 91% of cheetahs being hunted down or driven out of their natural habitat. Much later, national and private reserves were established in southern Africa which allowed about 9% of the cheetah’s historical territory to be preserved.

 

The cheetah enjoys lying down in the bushes.

You’re most likely to find cheetahs having a nap in long grasses.

 

2) Almost 77% of cheetahs live in unprotected areas where they often come into regular contact with humans. This means that they are regularly exposed to poaching, those looking to sell cubs as pets on the black market, as well as the possibility of being caught by farmers trying to protect livestock.

3) Many private game reserves believe that cheetahs are not as much of a tourist attraction as the Big Five game, such as lions or elephants. That makes it more difficult to validate investing a significant portion of their earnings into cheetah conservation.

4) Cheetahs naturally face stiff competition in the wild, from other predators, especially lions, and scavengers, like hyenas.

5) Cheetahs naturally have a very low genetic diversity. Why this might be is still a matter of scientific debate, but the real situation is that cheetah populations have been separated due to human development, further limiting the cheetah’s genetic pool.

This leads to deformities and genetic weaknesses if the population is not properly managed. The aim of the Cheetah Metapopulation Project is to ensure the genetic diversity of the cheetah population through effective management.

How many cheetahs are left in the world?

Today there are only about 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild. Researchers believe that this has to do with the fact that a large number of cheetahs live in unprotected areas and that there aren’t any clear incentives in place for local communities to protect these animals.

Further reading: Fascinating facts about Africa’s endangered animals

 

The Cheetah population can be conserved through volunteering on a wildlife program.

Why are cheetahs important?

Firstly, as predators, cheetahs are responsible for keeping the antelope population in balance. If these animals aren’t hunted, the herd would grow to an enormous size, wiping out their own food supply and starving as a result.  

Secondly, because cheetahs are often chased off their prey, they are responsible for feeding other animals, like lions, hyenas, and vultures. Other predators, and even scavengers might be required to hunt more frequently if cheetahs weren’t around.

And most importantly, the cheetah is one of the most unique creatures on planet Earth. It is the fastest land animal, and one of a series of beautiful wild cats. 

Wouldn’t it be a shame if future generations weren’t able to see this marvelous animal for themselves?

 

The cheetah is the fastest land animal.

Original photo: “Cheetah” by DrZoltan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

How can we help cheetahs?

1) Create awareness around the issue of cheetahs being purchased illegally to be kept as pets. This can help curb the smuggling of cheetahs.

2) Donate to organisations like the GVI Trust or the Cheetah Conservation Fund. When donating to the GVI Trust, make sure to request that your funds go toward our wildlife conservation efforts in South Africa.

3) Join our cheetah research project in Limpopo, South Africa.

Further reading: Ten of the best organisations to follow to help endangered animals

Help save the cheetahs: join the GVI cheetah conservation research project

Cheetah kill utilisation study

Learning more about how often cheetahs hunt and how much of the kill they actually consume helps park managers learn more about investing in cheetah conservation.

In 2016, our then base manager in Limpopo, Richard Wilks, noticed that cheetahs in the private game reserve we partner with seemed to abandon their kill often and very readily. His hypothesis was that because the park is a very predator-dense area, the cheetahs abandon their kill in order to avoid being harassed by other predators.

 

Cheetah conservation is essential for the cheetah population.

 

This, however, has a significant impact on the management of the reserve, as these cheetahs would need to kill more antelope in order to consume the amount required for survival. Reserve managers in a predator-dense park would, therefore, need to ensure that there are more antelope in the park in order to maintain a healthy cheetah population.

Richard then started to observe the cheetahs and track how many times they secure a kill as well as how much they actually eat before abandoning it. Informally known as the cheetah kill utilisation study, the project now accepts volunteers to contribute to the data collection necessary for reaching a significant finding.

Volunteers joining the project will be taught how to use charts specifically designed to determine whether a cheetah has fed recently and how much of the kill has been eaten. They will learn how a rigorous conservation study like this is set up, the systems that need to be in place to ensure accurate data collection and how the data will be used to provide local and international partners with actionable insight.

While you’ll be directly contributing to cheetah conservation efforts, the skills you’ll learn on this project will also assist you in carrying out wildlife conservation research projects across the globe.

This means you’ll both be making an impact and improving your employability at the same time. You’ll also receive comprehensive support from our base manager in Limpopo, as well as the science officer, who will both be with you on the project the entire time. 

You’ll also have access to the rest of our field staff at the base as well as our support team in Cape Town. 

 

Cheetah metapopulation project

In addition to contributing to the cheetah kill utilisation project, volunteers will also be able to learn about the exciting Cheetah Metapopulation Project, part of which is being carried out in the park we partner with. As mentioned, this project manages cheetah genetic diversity throughout Southern Africa, in both private and national parks.

Late in 2016, discussions around increasing the cheetah population in the park began. The park had one female, but no males. The park managers were advised against bringing in younger cheetahs who had grown up in areas where there aren’t many predators, like the Karoo.

 

A coalition of two cheetahs resting.

 

Cheetahs have a low genetic diversity, which means that conservationists need to actively manage the population.

The reason for this is that taking an animal from an environment in which it is not under threat from predators and putting the animal in an environment where there are many dangers means that the animal will not be able to adapt and is unlikely to survive.

They, therefore, decided to introduce a coalition of males. Although the males were from a less predator-dense area, they would be able to protect one another from larger predators like lions. 

This group of brothers have a contrasting genetic makeup to the park’s female cheetah and could help grow the population through breeding. The resulting cubs would grow up to be vigilant of predators.

This study has exciting implications if it can be proven to be successful. Previously, predator-dense reserves have been reluctant to introduce cheetahs, due to their poor survival rate. 

If it can be proven that this method works, more parks are likely to introduce additional cheetahs, helping to increase the total cheetah population.

 

You can work with cheetahs on a conservation program.

 

To help out with data collection for the cheetah kill utilisation study be sure to fill out the application form. You can also join our other wildlife conservation programs in South Africa, like the two week “wildlife research in South Africa expedition”, or if you’re under 18, book the “African wildlife awareness for under 18s”.

You can also combine a passion for marine and wildlife conservation by booking the GVI “ African tropical island and savannah conservation” project. We also have two wildlife conservation internships available in South Africa, a short-term, three-month internship and a longer-term, six-month internship, which includes a placement with a local partner.

In addition to our wildlife conservation projects in South Africa, we also run marine and wildlife conservation projects around the world, in locations like Costa Rica, Mexico, Fiji, Thailand and Seychelles.

Contact us if you’d like to know more about helping the cheetah and other life. It’s our goal to build a network of people around the world passionate about protecting the environment and empowering communities globally.