Acinonyx jubatus (Schreber, 1775)
Photo: Doug Lee
|Swahili:||Duma / Msongo|
IUCN Conservation Status:
Vulnerable (VU), C2a(i) = a continuing decline in numbers of mature individuals.
No sub-population was found to contain more than 1 000 mature individuals.
In 2006 cheetah numbers worldwide were estimated to be <15 000.
The cheetah’s speed, its hunting skills and its daylight activity led to its choice as a tame hunting companion in earlier times. Evidence of this can be seen on a silver urn found recently in the Caucasian mountains. The urn, dating back to 700-300 BC, is etched with a tamed cheetah wearing a neck collar. In South Africa, bushman from the Kalahari have a tradition of tracking cheetah to its kill in order to snatch meat for their own use.
In 1775 J. C. D. von Schreber described it as a “purring” cat and classified it as Felis jubatus. More recently it was reclassified as Acinonyx jubatus as it differs from other cats in having claws that are not fully retractable. The name “cheetah” is derived from the Hindu word “chita” which means “spotted”. The genus is represented by a single species A. jubatus and is widely distributed from Africa to the Middle East.
Two early giant cheetah species existed in North America one of which gave rise to the extant puma Puma concolor and the other to Acinonyx pardinensis the progenitor of the extant cheetah. Either the original giant cheetah or A. pardinensis, crossed a land bridge and spread throughout Europe and Asia. Fossil records indicate that A. pardinensis, with a mass of 95 kg, occurred in Europe about 3.8-1.9 million years BP. A fossil of A. pardinensis dating 3.4 million years BP was found at Sterkfontein in South Africa. The current form of the cheetah probably developed recently, and very rapidly, some 0.7 million years BP. A smaller cheetah species, A. intermedius occurred in an area stretching from Europe to China some 2.5 million years BP. Cheetah were extinct in India by 1952 and in Russia by 1989. Only a reduced population of 40-50 cheetah remains in the Middle East, most being found in Iran and a few in Pakistan. The two largest remaining cheetah populations are in the Serengeti and in Namibia and Botswana. Two historic population bottlenecks in the development of the African cheetah have inhibited any genetic divergence of sub-speciation.
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Slender build with relatively long legs and light in weight in relation to size. The average mass of an adult cheetah male is 64 kg and of a female, 45 kg. Its aerodynamic build allows it to reach speeds of up to 104 km/hour during a chase, the highest speed of all land mammals. The claws are partly retractable in poorly developed nail beds, and distinguishes the cheetah from other cats that have fully retractable claws and from the dog family that has non-retractable claws. The spots differ from the rosette-like spots on the pelage of the leopard and jaguar as they are round or oval and fully coloured. A typical black teardrop-stripe commences from the inner eye and stretches down the face to the corner of the mouth. Cheetah from the Sahara desert are lighter in colour with hazelnut-coloured spots and dull teardrop stripes and tail rings, some being so light that they are referred to as white cheetah. Individuals inhabiting the black rocky mountain areas of the Sahara usually have a brighter colouring.
A unique colour variation known as the king cheetah is found in southern Africa. Free roaming king cheetahs were first recorded in 1928 with the most recent sighting being in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in 1992. since 1980 several king cheetah litters have been born in captivity in the De Wildt Cheetah Research Centre 2004. Research indicates that the king cheetah is not a genetic sub-species but merely a colour variant of A. jubatus, with longer, more silk-like hair. The spots along the spine of this variant meld together to form stripes. The end quarter of the tail is solid black compared to the rings of the common cheetah.
In the 17th century, a cheetah with dark blue spots on a blue-tinted, white skin was found in Jahaner, India. Sightings of a spotless cheetah in Tanzania in 1921 and of a black cheetah in Kenya in 1972 were also reported.
Comparison To Man
The trophy measurement is the accumulative measure of the maximum length of the skull from the nostril to the base of the cranium together with the maximum diameter of the skull.
Although cheetah fare well on grass plains they prefer open savannah woodland with ample visibility. Hunting success is increased by a moderate growth of vegetation for refuge but dense thicket limits their chasing strategy. They are mostly restricted to sub-tropical and arid habitats with an annual rainfall of 100-600 mm. Although past distribution included temperate highveld grassland, this habitat is marginal. Mountainous terrain and riverine thickets are totally avoided. The most determining habitat parameter is the abundance of suitable prey.
Feeding & Nutrition
Cheetah are predominantly diurnal. Most hunting takes place in early mornings after dawn and in late afternoons before dusk, as they need good visibility to outrun their prey. Free roaming, adult cheetah require 2.5-3.5 kg fresh meat per day in order to maintain their health. They seldom take prey larger than 60 kg and do not scavenge carcasses killed by other predators, preferring fresh meat from their own kills. Young animals are hunted rather than old, injured or sick individuals.
A cheetah hunt follows one of three basic strategies:
- pouncing on unsuspecting prey
- searching for prey using a vantage point such as a high termite mound or a large, fallen tree trunk
- ambushing, pushing or charging prey against a game or stock fence. Cheetah are masters of this strategy
A kill usually starts with a short, high speed chase of 100-250 m. The cheetah then trips its prey with a smack against the hind legs, jumps over it and smothers it by sinking its fangs into the throat. The average recorded chase distance for successful kills in the southern Kalahari was 218 m and for unsuccessful chases, 122 m. The killed prey is consumed rapidly in order to prevent its theft by other larger predators such as lion and hyaena. Even vultures can succeed in taking over a cheetah kill. When more than one cheetah feed together their bodies lie in a circle around the carcass forming a unique star-like pattern. They are independent of surface water although they will drink if water is available. Most water requirements are met by the blood that accumulates in the hollows of a kill. Wild fruit such as the tsamma and gemsbok cucumber found in the arid Kalahari, are frequently chewed in order to supplement their water intake.
Lion and cheetah are the only large cats in the world that form social groups. Groups of cheetah consist of an adult alpha female and her sub-adult cubs, or of 2-4 sub-adult (chi) or adult (beta or alpha) brothers or, less often, beta sisters. Adult males of the same litter either live together as a brother group or split to become solitary nomads. With a high cheetah density and a good supply of prey, non-related male groups may form large, temporary groups of up to 20 individuals. Related brothers generally group together for life and inhabit the same home range, while solitary males will only fight to defend a territory or home range for a few months and then become nomadic. Male groups do not have a hierarchy of dominance and all members may mate with an available alpha female.
Cheetah display a unique behaviour in their use of “play-trees”. These act as a beacon for social gatherings of homebound groups and for single, adult, nomad cheetah of a different birth origin. Generally, a play-tree is visible from a distance and is a lone, tall tree consisting of a single large stem, ample canopy shading and sparse vegetation underneath. The stem is marked to a height of 1.7 m by numerous claw scratches. Visiting cheetah often remain at a play tree for several days. Cheetah from different groups tolerate each other at play-trees and there is interchange of individuals between groups. It is a preferred site for alpha female/male bonding.
The cheetah’s worst enemies are the degradation of suitable habitat, an inadequate supply of prey and the low genetic diversity of the species. As few cheetah in the Serengeti live beyond four years, most females can produce only one litter. Diseases commonly causing mortalities are anthrax, tick fever, mange and catynteritis. Cheetah are also susceptible to internal parasites.
|Cheetah information table
|Adult body weight:
|Adult shoulder height:||cm
|Total body length (snout to tail
|Age of sexual maturity
|Age Of Social adulthood (1st mating)
|1st litter at
| Independent at age
|Gender ratio: natural (all ages)
|Mating ratio: natural (adults)
|Re-establishment: absolute minimum number needed
|Re-establishment: smallest viable population size
& small groups
|Spatial behaviour: home range
|Spatial behaviour: territory range
|Daily food consumption (adults)
|Maximum stocking load
||1-40 cats per 10000 ha
(determined by prey/animal abundance)
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