Description of Acinonyx jubatus
In Asia, the cheetah has lost almost all its vast historic range, which within the last century extended from the shores of the Mediterranean and the Arabian peninsula, north to the northern shores of the Caspian and Aral Seas, and west through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan into central India (Nowell and Jackson 1996; Habibi 2004; Mallon 2007). Part of the reason for their disappearance in Asia is live captures of cheetahs, which were trained to hunt for the aristocracy (Divyabhanusingh, 1995). The main cause, however, was likely depletion of the wild prey base, especially gazelles, as well as direct killing of cheetahs and development of their habitat (Mallon, 2007). The Asiatic cheetah (A. j. venaticus) is now known to survive only in Iran, where it is Critically Endangered. Persistence in Pakistan is unlikely (Husain 2001). While Habibi (2004) considers it extinct in Afghanistan, a cheetah skin of unknown origin was found in a marketplace in western Afghanistan in 2007 (L. Hunter pers. comm.).
Southern and Eastern Africa are the species strongholds, although there has been significant range loss in parts of these regions. Cheetahs are known to occur only in 6% of their historical range in Eastern Africa (310,586 km²), and possibly occur in another 892,658 km² (Anon. 2007). Current distribution in several countries remains largely unknown (Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Angola, Mozambique and Zambia). Cheetahs are known to be extirpated from large areas in Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi (Anon. 2007, 2008). In some parts of southern Africa they occur extensively outside protected areas on commercial ranch land where other large predators (lions and hyenas) have been extirpated (Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe) (Purchase et al. 2007).
Cheetahs have declined most drastically in northern and western Africa (Ray et al. 2005). The subspecies (A. j. heckii) is listed as Critically Endangered; see subspecies account for detailed information on northwest Africa.
Cheetah persistence in the eastern Sahara is unlikely.
Cheetahs are possibly extinct in Libya. Specimens were previously collected near the Egyptian border (northeastern part of the country), in Dahra, Sirtica (north-central), Bir Ghazal and Hamada-el-Homra (northwestern). Other records include Fezzan, Khor-el-Gifa, Gikherra (eastern), El Ftaia (near coastal area) and Mizda (Hufnagl 1972). Myers (1975) mentioned that cheetahs were noted in Niger/Libyan borders as well as Niger/Algerian borders. An inquiry with local Tuaregs suggested that the species might not longer be present in Akoukas Mountains (J.-L. Bernezat pers. comm. 2007).
In Tunisia, cheetahs were formerly reported to roam in sandy expanses south of Chott-el-Djerid, the desert areas south of Foum Tatahouine and the Grand Erg Occidental and its surroundings (Schomber and Kock 1960). There are no recent records on the species in the country which make it presumably extinct. The El-Borma region, near the Algerian boundaries, was probably among the areas where cheetahs have last been seen in 1974 and documented (Louis 1979).
As far as Egypt is concerned, data collated during the last few decades suggest that cheetahs are extremely rare, if not extinct, in the country. Osborn and Helmy (1980) provided original and literature-based records from the Matrouh Governorate and Sinai. According to Saleh et al. (2001), cheetahs became extinct from most of the Mediterranean coastal region and easily accessible inland habitats of El-Maghra and Siwa oases one decade after being widely distributed in the northern Egyptian Western Desert until the 1970s. The main reasons explaining cheetah extirpation have been attributed to extensive and uncontrolled hunting and the development of coastal lands (Saleh et al. 2001). If not completely vanished, the species is believed to be confined, with a very low density, to the Western Desert and around the Qattara Depression (Saleh et al., 2001; Hoath, 2003). Recent records from North Sinai, including one female and three cubs killed by Bedouin hunters in 1993, as well as one female seen with two cubs in November 1994, have not been verified (Hoath 2003).
In the eastern Sahel and central Africa, there is little current information:
Current cheetah distribution in most of its historic range in Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia are unknown (Anon. 1997). In Chad, although cheetahs were still present and seen occasionally in Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim in the 1970s (J. Newby pers. comm. 2008). A recent wildlife survey in western and central Chad, including Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim Faunal Reserve, conducted by the Sahelo-Saharan Interest Group in 2001, failed to detect any cheetah presence in the region (Monfort et al. 2003). In the Central Saharan (northern) part of the country, cheetahs still occur, in very low density, in and around the Ennedi Massif (J. Newby pers. comm. 2008 based on Rava’s pers. comm.). There is no information on previously reported populations in the Tibesti Mountains (Central Sahara). In southeastern Chad, cheetahs may still survive to date in Zakouma National Park (population still present in the protected area as of 2006 [N. Vanherle pers. comm. 2008]).
In central Africa, current cheetah distribution in the savanna regions of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, and Democratic Republic of Congo is unknown (Marker 2002). It is considered extinct in Rwanda and Burundi, and possibly extinct in Nigeria. Rosevear (1974) underlined the paucity of positive records for Nigeria and mentioned Lake Chad, Yan Tumaki (Katsina Division) and possibly Bauchi Plateau as localities for three specimens kept in the British Museum. Happold (1987) raised the possibility of their occurrence near Cameroonian boundaries, and also in the Yankari Game Reserve (Happold 1987). Recent reports from protected area managers and wildlife traders indicate that a threatened small cheetah population may still range in restricted areas in north-centre and northeastern parts of the country (R. Ikemeh pers. comm. 2008).
The historic distribution of cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) is very wide. It ranged from Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula to Tajikistan and central India, as well as throughout the continent of Africa excluding the zones of tropical forest and central Sahara. This range might include the arid and semiarid habitats of the regions of south, east, and north Africa and less arid areas of India, Turkmenistan, Syria, Palestine, and Arabia. In regions of Africa and Asia, European settlers treated cheetahs as vermin to be eradicated. The range of cheetahs was greatly reduced by the 1970s, and surveys conducted before 2005 indicate that the cheetah is present in 25 countries on the African continent.
Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native ); oriental (Native ); ethiopian (Native )
- Caro, T. 1994. Cheetahs of the Serengeti Plains: group living in an asocial species. Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
- Eaton, R. 1982. The cheetah: the biology, ecology, and behavior of an endangered species. Malabra, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.
- Kitchener, A. 1991. The natural history of the wild cats. London, United Kingdom.: Christopher Helm, A. and C. Black.
- Krausman, P., S. Morales. 2005. Acinonyx jubatus. Mammalian Species, 771: 1-6.
- Myers, N. 1975. The cheetah Acinonyx jubatus in Africa. International Union of the Conservation of Nature, 4: 9–90.
- Nowak, R. 1999. Walker’s mammals of the world, 6th edition. Baltimore, Maryland: .Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Roosevelt, T. 1910. African Game Trails; an Account of the Wanderings of a Hunter-naturalist. New York, New York: New York Syndicate.
- Turner, A. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives. New York: Columbia University Press.
Distribution in Egypt
Localized (Qattara depression and neighboring desert)
Africa to India
Cheetahs are slim and have relatively long legs in relation to their body size when compared with other cats, with a small, rounded head and short ears. Their monomorphic pelage is pale yellow, gray, or fawn on dorsal surfaces, and is speckled with small, round, unarranged black spots throughout the body and set closely together. The ventral surfaces are paler than the dorsal, often white or a light tan. The fur is coarse to the touch with a slight mane of longer hair on the nape. Their faces are distinctly marked with a black lachrymal stripe from the anterior corner of the eye alongside the length of the muzzle. The eyes of adults and cubs have circular pupils when contracted and relaxed. The ears are small and rounded, with lightly colored inner fur in contrast to the posterior side, which has a black patch within the main dorsal color of the individual. Their tails are spotted above with a background the main dorsal color of the individual, and the ventral surface is the same paler color as the main ventral color. The posterior third of the tail has a series of dark or black rings terminating in a white tip. The paws of cheetahs are narrow in comparison to other cats. The front paws have four toes and a dewclaw, and the hind paws have four toes. The claws are slightly curved and blunted from contact with the ground, as cheetahs have weakly retractile claws with no protective skin folds.
Body lengths of cheetahs range from 112 to 150 cm. Tail lengths are between 60 and 80 cm and the height at the shoulder is 67 to 94 cm. The weights of cheetahs range from 21 to 72 kg, with the average male larger than the average female. Cheetah skulls are short and broad, above the muzzle and cranium they are highly raised and vaulted. Nasal openings are dorsally broad and enlarged, with the bony plate extending well behind the molars. Nasal passages are large in comparison with other cats. Young cubs have a pronounced mane that extends over the head, neck, and back, and is distinctly lighter shade, often looking gray, white or bluish-gray. The long, woolly mane of cubs is thought to make them less conspicuous to predators. Despite the long fur of cubs, spots are consistently visible on the underfur. Cubs gradually lose their mane until they are adolescent.
In 1927, an additional species of cheetahs was described as king cheetahs (Acinonyx rex). The specimens differed from other cheetahs having longer and softer fur and deviations from the typical spotted pattern. King cheetahs had dark bars in addition to spots on the typical yellow pelage. Fourteen skins were recorded from the wild in Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso. It is now accepted that these individuals are an atypical phenotype of cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) with a slight melanistic trend. Individuals with king cheetah markings have been bred from captive cheetahs with otherwise typical litters. Little information is available for other phenotypic variations. Albanism and melanism have been well documented in other species of cat, including the tiger, the African lion, the leopard, and the jaguar.
Range mass: 21 to 72 kg.
Range length: 112 to 150 cm.
Sexual Dimorphism: male larger
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Average basal metabolic rate: 61.77 W.
- Cuvier, , Geroges, Baron. 1978. The Class Mammalia volume 2. Washington, DC: Arno Press Inc..
- Lydekker, R. 1895. A handbook to the Carnivora, Part I: Cats, civets, and mungooses. London, United Kingdom: W. H. Allen and Company.
Habitats that are favored by cheetahs include grasslands and deserts. Cheetahs are terrestrial, but have been known to climb trees on occasion.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune ; savanna or grassland
- Ortolani, , Alessia, T. Caro. 1996. The Adaptive Significans of Color Patterns in Carnivores: Phylogenetic tests of CLassic Hypotheses. Carnivore Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution, 2: 125-136.
Habitat and Ecology
Cheetahs are primarily found in open grassy habitats, but also make use of dry forest, savanna woodland, semi-desert and scrub, being absent from tropical rainforest. There are reports of cheetah at altitudes of 4,000 m on Mt Kenya (Young and Evans 1993). In the central Sahara, cheetahs occur in high mountain habitat - the Saharan mountains are hyper-arid, but still receive slightly higher rainfall than the surrounding desert. They are thus better vegetated and support small permanent waterholes and antelope populations (Nowell and Jackson 1996).
Cheetah habitat in Iran consists of desert, much of it with precipitation of fewer than 100 mm per year. The terrain ranges from plains and saltpans to eroded foothills, and rugged desert ranges that rise to an elevation of up to 2,000-3,000 m. The vegetation, if any, consists of a sparse cover of shrubs, most less than one meter tall, of the genera Salsola, Artemisia, Zygophyllum, Astragulus, Aphaxis, and others. Gazelles Gazella subgutturosa and G. bennetti were preferred prey, but they have now become scarce through over-hunting and replacement by livestock (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Opportunistic recovery of cheetah kills suggests that wild sheep Ovis orientalis, Persian ibex Capra aegagrus and Cape hares Lepus capensis are the key prey species today though none are considered optimal for cheetahs (Hunter et al. 2007).
Cheetahs have a social organization that is unique among the felids. Females are solitary or accompanied by dependent young, and males are either solitary or live in stable coalitions of two or three. Some coalitions consist of brothers, but unrelated males may also be members of the group. Unlike the coalitions formed by male lions, which remain attached to and mate with the females in a single pride, cheetah male coalitions mate with as many females as possible (Caro 1994), and females show no mate fidelity (Gottelli et al. 2007).
Female cheetahs in areas where prey is migratory (such as the Serengeti Plains) follow the herds, while male coalitions establish small territories (average 30 km²) and attempt to mate with females passing through (Durant et al. 1988; Caro 1994). However, in areas where prey is non-migratory, male and females have smaller, overlapping ranges that are similar in size (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002). On Namibian farmlands, where prey is non-migratory, both cheetah sexes have very large home ranges (average 1,642 km²); however, intensively used core areas were just 14% of the total home range. The reasons for such large home ranges were unclear, and were apparently not the result of reduced prey availability (Marker 2002).
In comparison with other big cats, cheetahs occur at relatively low densities (10-30% of typical densities for lions, leopards, tigers and jaguars in prime habitat: Durant, 2007). On the Serengeti plains, cheetah densities range from 0.8-1.0 per 100 km², but seasonally cheetahs can congregate at densities up to 40 per 100 km² (Caro 1994). Caro (1994) attributes lower cheetah densities to interspecific competition (especially with larger species such as lions and hyenas that can kill cheetah cubs), but on Namibian farmlands, where lions and hyenas have been eradicated, cheetahs still occur at low densities (0.2 per 100 km²) (Marker 2002).
Cheetahs have a carnivorous diet, of which a large portion includes gazelles, especially the Thomson’s gazelle. Their diet also includes impalas and other small- and medium-sized ungulates, as well as young large ungulates. Small animals, such as hares and birds, are also prey to cheetahs, especially when other animals are hard to obtain. When cheetahs are able to overtake their prey, the animal is usually knocked to the ground with the cheetah’s forepaws, and the cheetah proceeds to strangle the animal by seizing its throat with its jaws. Strangling is not unique to cheetahs, as many other felids use this technique to kill their prey. Unlike other cats, cheetahs do not ambush or stalk prey until it is well within springing distance. Instead, they charges from a distance around 70 to 100 meters away from the subject. Success rates are often more dismal if the charge begins from more than 200 m distance, and the chase can only be continued for a distance up to 500 m. The cheetah is one of the fastest terrestrial mammals, with reported maximum speeds ranging from 80 to 112 kilometers per hour. This velocity, however, cannot be maintained for more than a few hundred meters before the individual overheats. The majority of hunts end in failure.
Animal Foods: birds; mammals
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)
The role of cheetahs in their ecosystem is relatively unknown.
Cheetah cub mortality is the highest for cats that are not hunted by humans. Lions, hyenas, and leopards have been documented killing cheetah cubs. There have been no direct observations of infanticide by cheetahs. Females have been observed in altercations with males within a short time range of losing cubs. It is presumed that if infanticide occurs among cheetahs, it is done with the purpose of ensuring that the mother will come into estrus. While other predators will kill adult cheetahs if the chance arises, most adults will flee predators. Lions and hyenas have been observed as kleptoparasites of cheetah kills, but the cheetah in question is usually unable to discourage parasitism and relents in favor of fighting for its meal.
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
While uncommon, when members of a male coalition become separated, vocal calling (described as “yipps” and “churrs”) occurs for up to 20 minutes continuously until reunited with his partners. Females will also call to their cubs to locate them, especially if young cubs have wandered from their hidden lair. Scent marking, while not direct, is an important aspect of communication with cheetahs since they are predominantly asocial and females only meet other individuals when it is time to breed.
Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic ; chemical
Other Communication Modes: scent marks
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
The lifespan of wild males is difficult to estimate due to the fact that they move to new areas often. The estimated minimum age at death of males observed was between 6 to 8 years of age. Territorial males tend to have better health conditions than nonresident males, and may be expected to live longer. There is no evidence suggesting that males in coalitions have a longer or shorter lifespan than solitary males. Females that survive to independence have a longer lifespan than males with an average age of 6.2 years. Males that reach independence have a minimum longevity of 2.8 years
Status: wild: 8 (high) years.
Status: wild: 6 (high) years.
Status: captivity: 19.0 years.
Status: captivity: 17.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Cheetahs are promiscuous in nature, with the limiting factor for males being accessibility to females. The factor limiting reproductive success for females is access to resources. Males associate with females only at mating, provide no parental care, and will mate with as many females as possible. Females are essentially solitary and will breed throughout the year, though the majority of copulations on the Serengeti occur during the wet season. Females will mate with different males over successive attempts, and if encounters with male coalitions occur, they may mate with more than one individual. Females have territories that will overlap with the territories of other females and males. Males, in or not in coalitions, will have territories in which they travel in search of females and will also leave their territories in search of females in estrus. Non-territorial males will travel the territories of resident males in search of females while keeping a low profile.
Mating System: polygynous ; polygynandrous (promiscuous)
Female cheetahs are polyestrus and in captivity cycle on average every 3 to 27 days, and may be receptive from 1 to 14 days. Cheetahs must be induced to ovulate, and there is little evidence for seasonal breeding. Females undergo their first cycle at the age of 13 to 16 months, and on average reach sexual maturity between the ages of 21 to 22 months. Females typically give birth to their first litter at an average of 2.4 years of age, with intervals between litters of 20.1 months and a mean litter size of 2.1 cubs. There is no evidence to suggest that females visit male territories in order to choose between different resident males. The average copulation frequency for cheetahs is 3 to 5 times per day.
Gestation lasts between 90 and 95 days. Cheetah cubs are altricial at birth. They have closed eyes, little locomotive skill, and will open their eyes 4 to 11 days after birth. Young cheetahs will begin walking after 12 to 13 days when their eyes are open. At birth in the wild, cubs weigh between 250 and 300 grams, but in captivity can reach 460 grams. Litter sizes have been recorded up to 8 cubs in captivity, but 6 is the maximum that has been recorded in the wild. The average litter size in the wild is 2.6 cubs. Deciduous milk teeth in cubs erupt between 3 and 6 weeks of age, and will not be replaced with permanent teeth until the cubs are around 8 months old. Cubs are weaned from milk before their permanent teeth erupt, between 3 and 6 months of age. Cubs will stay with their mother until they are 15 to 17 months old.
Breeding interval: The breading frequency of cheetahs is unknown.
Breeding season: Females enter estrus at any point during the year.
Range number of offspring: 1 to 6.
Average number of offspring: 2.1.
Range gestation period: 90 to 95 days.
Range weaning age: 3 to 6 months.
Range time to independence: 15 to 17 months.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 13 to 16 months.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; induced ovulation ; fertilization ; viviparous
Average birth mass: 489 g.
Average number of offspring: 3.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 456 days.
The thick gray mane that young cubs have on the nape, shoulders, and back appears to function as camouflage from predators. The infant hair disappears after 3 months of age after their mother no longer hides them and they begin to follow her. A short mane is retained into adolescence or longer for some individuals. Young cubs are hidden in a marsh, a rocky outcrop, or simply tall vegetation for protection from predators for an average of eight weeks, and may be carried to new hiding locations during the period as their mothers leave the cubs to hunt. Females with cubs may have to hunt successfully every day, whereas lone adults can afford to make kills every 2 to 5 days.
Parental Investment: altricial ; female parental care ; pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); extended period of juvenile learning; inherits maternal/paternal territory
- Broom, R. 1949. Notes on the milk dentition of the lion, leopard and cheetah. Annals Transvaal Museum, 21: 183-185.
- Caro, T. 1994. Cheetahs of the Serengeti Plains: group living in an asocial species. Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
- Caro, T., D. Collins. 1987. Male cheetah social organization and territoriality. Ethology, 74: 52-64.
- Eaton, R. 1974. The cheetah. Reinhold, New York: Van Nostrand.
- Kitchener, A. 1991. The natural history of the wild cats. London, United Kingdom.: Christopher Helm, A. and C. Black.
- Krausman, P., S. Morales. 2005. Acinonyx jubatus. Mammalian Species, 771: 1-6.
- Laurenson, M. 1993. Early maternal behavior of wild cheetahs: implications for captive husbandry. Zoo Biology, 12: 31-43.
- Nowak, R. 1999. Walker’s mammals of the world, 6th edition. Baltimore, Maryland: .Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Wack, R., L. Kramer, W. Cupps, P. Currie. 1991. Growth rate of 21 captive-born, mother-raised cheetah cubs. Zoo Biology, 10: 273-276.
- Wrogemann, N. 1975. Cheetah under the sun. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Evolution and Systematics
The spine of the cheetah increases its running speed because its flexiblity allows longer stride lengths.
"They [plains predators] have effectively lengthened their limbs by making their spine extremely flexible. At full stretch, travelling at high speed, their hind and front legs overlap one another beneath the body just like those of a galloping antelope. The cheetah has a thin elongated body and is said to be the fastest runner on earth, capable of reaching speeds, in bursts, of over 110 kph. But this method is very energy-consuming. Great muscular effort is needed to keep the spine springing back and forth and the cheetah cannot maintain such speeds for more than a minute or so." (Attenborough 1979:264)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Attenborough, D. 1979. Life on earth. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. 319 p.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Acinonyx jubatus
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Acinonyx jubatus
Public Records: 3
Specimens with Barcodes: 21
Species With Barcodes: 1
The IUCN database lists cheetahs as a vulnerable species. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service lists the cheetah as endangered in all locations found, and has been on the endangered species list since the 2nd of June, 1970. Despite this, yearly quotas are permitted in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana of 50, 150, and 5 individuals, respectively. Genetic studies of cheetahs have shown that there is very little genetic variation within the species, possibly due to a severe bottleneck event during its evolutionary history. This leaves the cheetah extremely vulnerable to environmental disruption and disease. Cheetahs, when compared to other African cats, have a smaller success rate in hunting. Cheetahs “seem to work harder” (Nowak 1999) than other big cats, and so might be more vulnerable to environmental change from human disturbance than the other cats in the area. The people of Namibia and Zimbawe still persecute cheetahs today due to livestock losses, and they are shot for sport in regions of the Sahel. However, most of the countries where cheetahs are found protect the species.
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: vulnerable
- IUCN, 1996. "Cat Specialist Group: Species Accounts: Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)" (On-line). Accessed November 21, 2011 at http://www.iucn.org/.
- US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1970. "United States Fish and Wildlife Service" (On-line). Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), Environmental Conservation Online System. Accessed November 21, 2011 at http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A00S.
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Subspecies in Iran (A. j. venaticus) and northwest Africa (A. j. heckii) are listed as Critically Endangered.
- 1994Vulnerable(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Vulnerable(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Vulnerable(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1986Vulnerable(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
Date Listed: 06/02/1970
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Acinonyx jubatus , see its USFWS Species Profile
Status in Egypt
The number of known resident cheetahs in Eastern Africa (Ethiopia, southern Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania) is estimated at 2,572 adults and independent adolescents. Most population estimates were derived from applying a density estimate of one adult per 100 km² to mapped resident range areas during a conservation strategy workshop, although a few are based on research. Only four of the 15 known populations were estimated to number >200 animals; the largest population (Serengeti/Maro/Tsavo in Kenya and Tanzania) is estimated at 710. It would be much smaller if unprotected lands were included. Overall, less than half of the estimated cheetah population inhabits protected areas. In addition, approximately half lives in habitat blocks which are trans-boundary, requiring international cooperation for conservation of the population. Cheetahs possibly occur over an area which is several times as large as the range of the known population (Anon. 2007).
These estimates can be compared with previous population estimates based on extensive field interviews and application of density estimates. There is rough accord for Kenya at 793 (Gros 1998) and Tanzania at 569-1,007 (Gros 2002). However, in Uganda, Gros and Rejmanek (1999) estimated 40-295 with a wider range in the Karamoja region, whereas now cheetahs have been extirpated and just 12 are estimated to persist in Kidepo National Park and surroundings (Anon. 2007).
In the remainder of Africa, there are few reliable population estimates. Cheetahs are considered extinct or possibly extinct in many countries (Marker 2002). In northwest Africa the population is probably fewer than 250 mature individuals and the subspecies A. j. heckii is listed as Critically Endangered.
In Asia cheetahs are now known to exist only in Iran, where the subspecies A. j. venaticus is estimated at 60-100 (Hunter et al. 2007) and listed as Critically Endangered.
The known cheetah population is not much greater than 7,000, and the total population is unlikely to exceed 10,000 mature individuals, thus meeting the criteria for Vulnerable. The current known population is half the 15,000 estimated by Myers (1975) from his continental status assessment. The effective population size (the estimated percentage of the population contributing to the gene pool through reproductive success) could be less than half of the total population (Kelly 2001).
While the current rate of population decline is of most concern, and the historical rate of decline has been severe (Nowell and Jackson, 1996; Ray et al. 2005), attention has also focused on the cheetah's having perhaps suffered even more extreme losses in the distant past. The cheetah species exhibits remarkably low levels of genetic diversity in comparison to other felids (O'Brien et al. 1986) (but not compared to carnivores in general: Merola 1994). This is consistent with inbreeding among a very few individuals surviving one or more catastrophic population bottlenecks in the past, with the first possibly occurring during the late Pleistocene extinctions, around 10,000 years ago, according to analysis of mitochondrial DNA (Menotti-Raymond and O'Brien 1995).
It is unclear what sort of agent could have caused such an extreme population decline in a wide-ranging species, and alternative explanations have been explored. Hedrick (1996) suggested the low levels of genetic variation could result from a very low effective population size (the estimated percentage of the population that is actually passing on its genes), and Kelly's (2001) calculations of effective population size in cheetahs of the Serengeti Plains were quite low (44% or less of the actual population). She found that only a few females contributed disproportionately to future generations by raising offspring which survived and reproduced (Kelly 2001). Genetic analysis by Gottelli et al. (2007) showed that male cheetahs, on the other hand, passed on their genes more successfully than expected. Female cheetahs mated with multiple males, many non-resident, with 43% of litters having mixed paternity. This indicates that rates of genetic loss should be lower than anticipated by Kelly (2001), and underscores the importance of cheetah mobility in their ecology and conservation.
While the causes of the cheetah's low levels of genetic variation are unclear, what is clear is that large populations are necessary to conserve it. Since cheetahs are a low density species, conservation areas need to be quite large, larger than most protected areas.
A depleted wild ungulate prey base is of serious concern in northern Africa (Berzins and Belbachir 2006). Cheetahs which turn to livestock are killed as pests (Claro 2003; Hamdine et al. 2003; Wacher et al. 2005). Conflict with farmers and depletion of the wild prey base are also considered significant threats in parts of Eastern Africa (Anon. 2007).
In Iran, the Asiatic Cheetah A. j. venaticus is threatened indirectly by loss of prey base through human hunting activities. In addition, most protected areas are open to seasonal livestock grazing, which potentially places huge pressure on the resident ungulate populations through disturbance and potential competition (Hunter et al. 2007). Additionally, domestic dogs accompanying the herds present a likely threat to both cheetahs and their prey (H. Ziaie pers. comm. 2008) An emerging threat is the possibility of fragmentation into discontinuous subpopulations as a result of increasing developmental pressures (mining, oil, roads, railways); this is particularly the case in Kavir N.P., currently the north-western limit of the Asiatic Cheetah's range (L. Hunter and L. Marker pers. comm.).
Conflict with farmers and ranchers is the major threat to cheetahs in southern Africa (Purchase et al. 2007). Cheetah are often killed or persecuted because they are a perceived threat to livestock, despite the fact that they cause relatively little damage. In Namibia, very large numbers of cheetahs have been live-trapped and removed by ranchers seeking to protect their livestock (from government permit records, Nowell  calculated that over 9,500 cheetahs were removed from 1978-1995). While removal rates have fallen, in part due to intensified conservation and education efforts, many ranchers still view cheetahs as a problem animal, despite research showing that cheetahs were only responsible for 3% of livestock losses to predators (Marke, 2002). Although cheetah in Iran have been killed because of predation on livestock, since 2003, there has been no direct evidence of killing cheetahs (Hunter et al. 2007), though it is likely most incidents go unreported.
Cheetahs are also vulnerable to being caught in snares set for other species (Ray et al. 2005; Anon. 2007).
Another threat to the cheetah is interspecific competition with other large predators, especially lions. On the open, short-grass plains of the Serengeti, juvenile mortality can be as high as 95%, largely due to predation by lions (Laurenson 1994). However, mortality rates are lower in more closed habitats (Caro in press).
CITES allows legal trade in live animals and hunting trophies under an Appendix I quota system (annual quotas: Namibia - 150; Zimbabwe - 50; Botswana - 5). This was accepted by CITES as a way to enhance the economic value of cheetahs on private lands and provide an economic incentive for their conservation (Nowell 1996). The global captive cheetah population is not self-sustaining; cheetahs breed poorly in captivity and in 2001 30% of the captive population was wild-caught (Marker 2002). While analysis of trade records in the CITES database shows that these countries have reported almost no live exports since the late 1990s, Purchase et al. (2007) are concerned that there is a substantial illegal cross-border trade in live animals. There is also concern about illegal trade in skins, as well as capture of live cubs for trade to the Middle East (Anon. 2007). There is an increasing trade in cubs from north-east Africa into the Middle East (Amir 2005), but there is currently little trade in cubs from the Sahel region, where it was previously considered a major problem (K. de Smet pers. comm. 2007).
Cheetahs are active during the daytime and there is concern that they can be driven off their kills by tourist cars crowding around, or mothers separated from their cubs. Burney (1980) conducted a study and concluded that tourist cars did not seem to harm cheetahs, and in fact sometimes helped, as cheetah chases more often ended in a kill when there were cars around, distracting prey, providing cover from which to stalk, or otherwise waking cheetahs up to notice prey in the area. However, tourist numbers have risen sharply by then, and its potential impact on cheetahs remains a concern (Caro 1994; Anon. 2007).
The Eastern African cheetah conservation strategy (Anon. 2007) identified four sets of constraints to mitigating these threats across a large spatial scale. Political constraints include lack of land use planning, insecurity and political instability in some ecologically important areas, and lack of political will to foster cheetah conservation. Economic constraints include lack of financial resources to support conservation, and lack of incentives for local people to conserve wildlife. Social constraints include negative conceptions of cheetahs, lack of capacity to achieve conservation, lack of environmental awareness, rising human populations, and social changes leading to subdivision of land and subsequent habitat fragmentation. These potentially mutable human constraints contrast with several biological constraints which are characteristic of cheetahs and cannot be changed, including wide-ranging behaviour, negative interactions with other large carnivores, and potential susceptibility to disease.
Disease is a potential threat to the cheetah (Anon. 2007), as its reduced genetic diversity can increase a population's susceptibility (O'Brien et al. 1983). However, the most serious disease mortality thus far documented in wild cheetahs was from naturally occurring anthrax in Namibia's Etosha National Park; cheetahs, unlike other predators, do not scavenge carcasses of ungulates killed by anthrax, and thus had no built-up immunity when they preyed upon springbok sick with the disease (Lindeque et al. 1998). The cheetah's low density may offer some measure of protection against infectious disease; for example, cheetahs were not affected by an outbreak of Canine Distemper Virus in the Serengeti National Park which killed over 1/3 of the lion population. Serological surveys of cheetahs on Namibian farmland indicate some exposure and survival of the disease (Marker 2002).
Promotion of livestock management regimes which minimize conflict with cheetahs are an important conservation measure, pioneered by the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia (Marker et al., 2003) but now being applied more widely. Elements of successful conservation management include availability of wild prey and more intensive livestock herd protection, especially using guard dogs.
The Asiatic Cheetah is protected in Iran. The main protected areas for this species include Kavir National Park, Khar Touran National Park and Naybandan Wildlife Refuge, Bafgh P.A., and Dar Anjir Wildlife Refuge. A radio-telemetry study in Iran is providing the first detailed data on cheetahs in Iran (Hunter et al. 2007).
In 2009, the Afghan Government placed this species on the country’s Protected Species List, meaning all hunting and trading of this species within Afghanistan is now illegal.
Several countries, including Namibia and Kenya, have developed national action plans or conservation strategies for cheetahs (Nowell, 1996; Durant, 2007); regional conservation strategies have been developed for Southern (Dickman et al., 2006; Anon., 2008) and Eastern Africa (Anon., 2007); and there is also a global strategy (Bartels et al., 2002). These plans call for a number of improvements in monitoring, surveys and information exchange (to better understand cheetah distribution and status); promotion of human-cheetah coexistence (to reduce conflict and develop incentives to conserve cheetahs); national land use planning (to ensure viable national cheetah populations); capacity building (to improve management); policy and legislation (to ensure legal consistency and remove loopholes) and advocacy (to raise awareness of and political commitment to cheetah conservation needs).
Several specialist networks of cheetah conservationists have been established, including the Global Cheetah Forum (affiliated with the IUCN Conservation Breeding Specialist Group) and the North African Regional Cheetah Action Group (NARCAG/OGRAN). The IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group maintains a Cheetah Conservation Compendium with a reference library and detailed country information (www.catsg.org)
Important protected areas that represent strongholds for Cheetah populations in Africa include the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (South Africa, Botswana), Nxai Pan and Chobe National Parks, and Okavango Delta (Botswana), Etosha N.P. (Namibia), Liuwa Plains N.P. (Zambia), and, of course, the Serengeti N.P. (Tanzania, Kenya) (Caro in press). In West Africa, the major remaining stronghold for the species is the WAPO protected areas complex. There is a surviving population of Cheetah in the Ahaggar National Park in Algeria (Wacher et al. 2005).
However, most cheetah occur outside of protected areas (where they are often persecuted as pests), and given their need for large areas they require conservation action on a landscape scale (for example, human-wildlife conflict mitigation, zoning for land-use to maintain habitat connectivity, and wild prey restoration) (Marker, 2002; Anon., 2007).
This species is one of a number which have been included in various “Pleistocene rewilding” plans. Pleistocene rewilding is the proposed practice of restoring ecosystems to their state in the Pleistocene, roughly 10,000 years ago. This contrasts the standard conservation benchmark, particularly in North America, of restoring ecosystems to their pre-Columbian or pre-industrial state. In both Eurasia and North America, the Pleistocene was characterized by much greater diversity and numbers of large herbivores and predators, including proboscidians, equids, camelids, and felidae (Donlan et al 2006; Zimov 2005). The process of restoration would involve the reintroduction of extant species in their historic range, as well as the introduction of ‘proxy organisms’ to replace the ecological functionality of extinct organisms (Donlan et al 2006).
There are three central theoretical goals to Pleistocene rewilding. In Siberia, a team led by Sergey Zimov is investigating the role of large herbivores as ecosystem engineers. It is thought that herbivory pressure could play a central role in maintaining a grass-dominated plant community, as opposed to either tree- or moss-dominated. Grasslands are known to be more stable carbon sinks than either mossy or forested tundra, due to the rapidity of their biogeochemical cycling (Zimov 2005). In principle, then, reintroducing Pleistocene fauna could have positive climate change mitigation effects. Proposals in North America have focused instead on the preservation of ecological dynamics. Proponents of Pleistocene rewilding argue that due to the strong ecological interactions of megafauna, it is likely that their extinction at the end of the Pleistocene would have caused cascading ecological disruptions lasting until the present time (Donlan et al 2006). Additionally, introduction programs could provide a new lease on life for extant, endangered megafauna species, such as cheetahs and Asian elephants (Rubenstein 2006).
Pleistocene rewilding, while headline-grabbing, is by no means the standard of modern conservation biology. There are a number of objections to the proposals of Pleistocene rewilders, summarized by Rubenstein et al (2006). The introduction of species which have been locally extinct for thousands of years, and more particularly the introduction of modern relatives of extinct species, carries many risks: the potential for invasive species, catastrophic disruption of existing ecosystems, inadvertent introduction of disease organisms, and unpredictable behavior of introduced species. Additionally, while paleoecology is a growing field, there is still a fair amount of uncertainty about the actual ecosystem functions of the Pleistocene.
Species which Zimov and his colleagues in Siberia are experimenting with bison, musk oxen, Przewalski’s horse, and Siberian tigers (Zimov 2005). Small-scale introductions have already begun in Yakutia. Donlan et al propose introducing Przewalski’s horse, Bolson tortoises, Bactrian camels, cheetahs, lions, and elephants into the Western United States (Donlan et al 2005). While some individuals of these species are present on privately owned land, there are no free-living populations in North America at this time.
- Donlan CJ, Berger J, Bock CE, Bock JH, Burney DA, Estes JA, Foreman D, Martin PS, Roemer GW, Smith FA, Soule ME, Greene HW. 2005. Pleistocene Rewilding: An Optimistic Agenda for Twenty-First Century Conservation. The American Naturalist 168:660-681.
- Donlan, CJ. 2005. Re-Wilding North America. Nature 436:913-914.
- Rubenstein DR, Rubenstein DI, Sherman PW, Gavin TA. 2006. Pleistocene Park: Does Rewilding North America Represent Sound Conservation for the 21st Century? Biological Conservation 132:232-238.
- Zimov, SA. 2005. Pleistocene Park: Return of the Mammoth’s Ecosystem. Science 308:796-798.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
In Namibia and other regions of southern Africa, cheetahs are considered a pest and a serious danger to livestock, and are persecuted accordingly.
Negative Impacts: crop pest
The cheetah was semi-domesticated for the purposes of hunting in ancient Egypt, Sumeria, and Assyria, and continued to be used for 4,300 years. More recently, cheetahs been used for hunting by European and Indian royalty, usually taken hooded like a falcon and then released when game was within sight. Cheetahs were favored over other hunting companions because if they tried to escape, they could be caught within a few hundred yards by a person on horseback.
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material; ecotourism ; research and education
The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a large feline (family Felidae, subfamily Felinae) inhabiting most of Africa and parts of Iran. It is the only extant member of the genus Acinonyx. The cheetah can run faster than any other land animal— as fast as 112 to 120 km/h (70 to 75 mph) in short bursts covering distances up to 500 m (1,600 ft), and has the ability to accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in three seconds.
The cheetah is a unique felid, with its closest living relatives being the puma and jaguarundi of the Americas. This cat is notable for modifications in the species' paws, being one of the few felids with only semi-retractable claws.
Its main hunting strategy is to run down swift prey such as various antelope species and hares. Almost every facet of the cheetah's anatomy has evolved to maximise its success in the chase, the result of an evolutionary arms race with its prey. Due to this specialisation, however, the cheetah is poorly equipped to defend itself against other large predators, with speed being its main means of defence.
In the wild, the cheetah is a prolific breeder, with up to nine cubs in a litter. The majority of cubs do not survive to adulthood, mainly as a result of depredation from other predators. The rate of cub mortality varies from area to area, from 50% to 75%, and in extreme cases such as the Serengeti ecosystem, up to 90%. Cheetahs are notoriously poor breeders in captivity, though several organizations, such as the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre, have succeeded in breeding high numbers of cubs.
The cheetah is listed as vulnerable, facing various threats including competition with and predation by other carnivores, a gene pool with very low variability, and persecution by mankind. It is a charismatic species and many captive cats are "ambassadors" for their species and wildlife conservation in general.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Genetics, evolution, and classification
- 3 Description
- 4 Range and habitat
- 5 Reproduction and behavior
- 6 Relationship with humans
- 7 In popular culture
- 8 References
- 9 Sources
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
Genetics, evolution, and classification
The cheetah has unusually low genetic variability. This is accompanied by a very low sperm count, motility, and deformed flagella. Skin grafts between unrelated cheetahs illustrate the former point, in that there is no rejection of the donor skin. It is thought that the species went through a prolonged period of inbreeding following a genetic bottleneck during the last ice age. This suggests that genetic monomorphism did not prevent the cheetah from flourishing across two continents for thousands of years.
The cheetah likely evolved in Africa during the Miocene epoch (26 million to 7.5 million years ago), before migrating to Asia. Recent research has placed the last common ancestor of all existing populations as living in Asia 11 million years ago, which may lead to revision and refinement of existing ideas about cheetah evolution.
The now-extinct species include Acinonyx pardinensis (Pliocene epoch), much larger than the modern cheetah and found in Europe, India, and China; and Acinonyx intermedius (mid-Pleistocene period), found over the same range. The extinct genus Miracinonyx was extremely cheetah-like, but recent DNA analysis has shown that Miracinonyx inexpectatus, Miracinonyx studeri, and Miracinonyx trumani (early to late Pleistocene epoch), found in North America and called the "North American cheetah" are not true cheetahs, instead being close relatives to the cougar.
Although many sources list six or more subspecies of cheetah, the taxonomic status of most of these subspecies is unresolved. Acinonyx rex—the king cheetah—was abandoned as a subspecies after it was discovered that the variation was caused by a single recessive gene. The subspecies Acinonyx jubatus guttatus, the woolly cheetah, may also have been a variation due to a recessive gene. Some of the most commonly recognized subspecies include:
- Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus): Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia) Current range is in Iran. Extinct in other Asian countries.
- Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki): Northwest Africa (Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia) and western Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Senegal)
- Tanzanian cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus raineyii): Eastern Africa (Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda)
- South African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus): southern Africa (Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe) Introduced in Swaziland.
- Sudan cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii): Northeast Africa (Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan) and central Africa (Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Nigeria, and Niger)
The cheetah's chest is deep and its waist is narrow. The coarse, short fur of the cheetah is tan with round black spots measuring from 2 to 3 cm (0.79 to 1.18 in) across, affording it some camouflage while hunting. There are no spots on its white underside, but the tail has spots, which merge to form four to six dark rings at the end. The tail usually ends in a bushy white tuft. The cheetah has a small head with high-set eyes. Black "tear marks" running from the corner of its eyes down the sides of the nose to its mouth keep sunlight out of its eyes and aid in hunting and seeing long distances. Its thin and fragile body make it well-suited to short bursts of high speed, but not to long-distance running.
Agility, rather than raw speed, accounts for much of the cheetah's ability to catch prey. Cheetahs can accelerate four times as fast as a human (thanks to greater muscle power) and can slow down by 14 kilometers per hour in one stride. They can hunt successfully in densely vegetated areas.
The adult cheetah weighs from 21 to 72 kg (46 to 159 lb). Its total head-and-body length is from 110 to 150 cm (43 to 59 in), while the tail can measure 60 to 84 cm (24 to 33 in) in length. Cheetahs are 66 to 94 cm (26 to 37 in) tall at the shoulder. Males tend to be slightly larger than females and have slightly bigger heads, but there is not a great variation in cheetah sizes and it is difficult to tell males and females apart by appearance alone. Compared to a similarly sized leopard, the cheetah is generally shorter-bodied, but is longer tailed and taller (it averages about 90 cm (35 in) tall) and so it appears more streamlined.
Some cheetahs have a rare fur pattern mutation of larger, blotchy, merged spots. Known as "king cheetahs," they were once thought to constitute a separate subspecies but are in fact African cheetahs; their unusual fur pattern is the result of a single recessive gene. The "king cheetah" has only been seen in the wild a handful of times, but it has been bred in captivity.
The cheetah's paws have semi-retractable claws (known only in three other cat species: the fishing cat, the flat-headed cat and the Iriomote cat), offering extra grip in its high-speed pursuits. The ligament structure of the cheetah's claws is the same as those of other cats; it simply lacks the sheath of skin and fur present in other varieties, and therefore, with the exception of the dewclaw, the claws are always visible. The dewclaw is much shorter and straighter than that of other cats.
Adaptations that enable the cheetah to run as fast as it does include large nostrils that allow for increased oxygen intake, and an enlarged heart and lungs that work together to circulate oxygen efficiently. During a typical chase, its respiratory rate increases from 60 to 150 breaths per minute. While running, in addition to having good traction due to its semi-retractable claws, the cheetah uses its tail as a rudder-like means of steering to allow it to make sharp turns, necessary to outflank prey animals that often make such turns to escape.
Unlike true big cats of subfamily Pantherinae, the cheetah can purr as it inhales, but cannot roar. By contrast, the big cats can roar but cannot purr, except while exhaling. The cheetah is still considered by some to be the smallest of the big cats. While it is often mistaken for the leopard, the cheetah does have distinguishing features, such as the aforementioned long "tear-streak" lines that run from the corners of its eyes to its mouth, and spots that are not "rosettes". The thinner body frame of the cheetah is also very different from that of the leopard.
The cheetah is a vulnerable species. Of all the big cats, it is the least able to adapt to new environments. It has always proved difficult to breed in captivity, although recently a few zoos have managed to succeed at this. One technique has been to introduce a dog as a playmate and guard dog to enable a captive cheetah to feel less threatened.
Once widely hunted for its fur, the cheetah now suffers more from the loss of both habitat and prey.
The cheetah was formerly considered to be particularly primitive among the cats and to have evolved approximately 18 million years ago. However, new research suggests the last common ancestor of all 40 existing species of felines lived more recently than about 11 million years ago. The same research indicates that the cheetah, while highly derived morphologically, is not of particularly ancient lineage, having separated from its closest living relatives (Puma concolor, the cougar, and Puma yaguarondi, the jaguarundi) around five million years ago. These felids have not changed appreciably since they first appeared in the fossil record.
Morphs and variations
The king cheetah is a rare mutation of the cheetah characterized by a distinct fur pattern. It was first noted in what was then Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) in 1926. In 1927, the naturalist Reginald Innes Pocock declared it a separate species, but reversed this decision in 1939 due to lack of evidence; but in 1928, a skin purchased by Walter Rothschild was found to be intermediate in pattern between the king cheetah and spotted cheetah and Abel Chapman considered it to be a color form of the spotted cheetah. Twenty-two such skins were found between 1926 and 1974. Since 1927, the king cheetah was reported five more times in the wild. Although strangely marked skins had come from Africa, a live king cheetah was not photographed until 1974 in South Africa's Kruger National Park. Cryptozoologists Paul and Lena Bottriell photographed one during an expedition in 1975. They also managed to obtain stuffed specimens. It appeared larger than a spotted cheetah and its fur had a different texture. There was another wild sighting in 1986—the first in seven years. By 1987, thirty-eight specimens had been recorded, many from pelts.
Its species status was resolved in 1981 when king cheetahs were born at the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre in South Africa. In May 1981, two spotted sisters gave birth there and each litter contained one king cheetah. The sisters had both mated with a wild-caught male from the Transvaal area (where king cheetahs had been recorded). Further king cheetahs were later born at the Centre. It has been known to exist in Zimbabwe, Botswana and in the northern part of South Africa's Transvaal province.
In 2012, the cause of this alternative coat pattern was found to be a mutation in the gene for transmembrane aminopeptidase Q (Taqpep), the same gene responsible for the striped "mackerel" versus blotchy "classic" patterning seen in tabby cats. The mutation is recessive and must be inherited from both parents for this pattern to appear, which is one reason why it is so rare.
Other color variations
The Mughal Emperor of India, Jahangir, recorded having a white cheetah presented to him in 1608. In the memoirs of Tuzk-e-Jahangiri, the Emperor, says that in the third year of his reign, "Raja Bir Singh Deo brought a white cheetah to show me. Although other sorts of creatures, both birds and beasts have white varieties ... I had never seen a white cheetah. Its spots, which are (usually) black, were of a blue color, and the whiteness of the body also inclined to bluishness." This suggests a chinchilla mutation which restricts the amount of pigment on the hair shaft. Although the spots were formed of black pigment, the less dense pigmentation gives a hazy, grayish effect. As well as Jahangir's white cheetah at Agra, a report of "incipient albinism" has come from Beaufort West according to Guggisberg.
In a letter to "Nature in East Africa", H. F. Stoneham reported a melanistic cheetah (black with ghost markings) in the Trans-Nzoia District of Kenya in 1925. Vesey Fitzgerald saw a melanistic cheetah in Zambia in the company of a spotted cheetah. Red (erythristic) cheetahs have dark tawny spots on a golden background. Cream (isabelline) cheetahs have pale red spots on a pale background. Some desert region cheetahs are unusually pale; probably they are better-camouflaged and therefore better hunters and more likely to breed and pass on their paler colouration. Blue (Maltese or grey) cheetahs have variously been described as white cheetahs with grey-blue spots (chinchilla) or pale grey cheetahs with darker grey spots (Maltese mutation). A cheetah with hardly any spots was shot in Tanzania in 1921 (Pocock); it had only a few spots on the neck and back, and these were unusually small. Another cheetah with this color-morph was photographed in Kenya in 2012.
Range and habitat
There are several geographically isolated populations of cheetah, all of which are found in Africa or southwestern Asia. A small population (estimated at about 50) survive in the Khorasan Province of Iran, where conservationists are taking steps to protect them.
It is possible, though doubtful, that some cheetahs remain in India. There have also been several unconfirmed reports of Asiatic Cheetahs in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, with at least one dead animal being discovered recently.
The cheetah thrives in areas with vast expanses of land where prey is abundant. The cheetah likes to live in an open biotope, such as semidesert, prairie, and thick brush, though it can be found in a variety of habitats. In Namibia, for example, it lives in grasslands, savannahs, areas of dense vegetation, and mountainous terrain.
Reproduction and behavior
Females reach maturity in twenty to twenty-four months, and males around twelve months (although they do not usually mate until at least three years old), and mating occurs throughout the year. A study of cheetahs in the Serengeti showed females are sexually promiscuous and often have cubs by many different males.
Females give birth to up to nine cubs after a gestation period of ninety to ninety-eight days, although the average litter size is four. Cubs weigh from 150 to 300 g (5.3 to 10.6 oz) at birth. Unlike some other cats, the cheetah is born with its characteristic spots. Cubs are also born with a downy underlying fur on their necks, called a mantle, extending to mid-back. This gives them a mane or Mohawk-type appearance; this fur is shed as the cheetah grows older. It has been speculated this mane gives a cheetah cub the appearance of the honey badger (ratel), to scare away potential aggressors. Cubs leave their mother between thirteen and twenty months after birth. Life span is up to twelve years in the wild, but up to twenty years in captivity. The rate of cub mortality varies from area to area, from 50% to 75%, and in extreme cases such as the Serengeti ecosystem, up to 90%. In comparison to the Serengeti, the survival rate of cheetah cubs in the Kgalagadi area was seven times higher.
Unlike males, females are solitary and tend to avoid each other, though some mother/daughter pairs have been known to be formed for small periods of time. The cheetah has a unique, well-structured social order. Females live alone, except when they are raising cubs and they raise their cubs on their own. The first eighteen months of a cub's life are important; cubs must learn many lessons, because survival depends on knowing how to hunt wild prey species and avoid other predators. At eighteen months, the mother leaves the cubs, who then form a sibling ("sib") group that will stay together for another six months. At about two years, the female siblings leave the group, and the young males remain together for life.
Males are often social and may group together for life, usually with their brothers in the same litter; although if a cub is the only male in the litter then two or three lone males may form a group, or a lone male may join an existing group. These groups are called coalitions. In one Serengeti, 41% of the adult males were solitary, 40% lived in pairs and 19% lived in trios.
A coalition is six times more likely to obtain an animal territory than a lone male, although studies have shown that coalitions keep their territories just as long as lone males— between four to four and a half years.
Males are territorial. Females' home ranges can be very large and a territory including several females' ranges is impossible to defend. Instead, males choose the points at which several of the females' home ranges overlap, creating a much smaller space, which can be properly defended against intruders while maximizing the chance of reproduction. Coalitions will try their best to maintain territories to find females with whom they will mate. The size of the territory also depends on the available resources; depending on the part of Africa, the size of a male's territory can vary greatly from 37 to 160 km2 (14 to 62 sq mi).
Males mark their territory by urinating on objects that stand out, such as trees, logs, or termite mounds. When male cheetahs urine-mark their territories, they stand less than one meter away from a tree or rock surface with the tail raised, pointing the penis either horizontally backward or 60° upward. The whole coalition contributes to the scent.[further explanation needed] Males will attempt to kill any intruders, and fights result in serious injury or death.
Unlike males and other felines, females do not establish territories. Instead, the area they live in is termed a home range. These overlap with other females' home ranges, often those of their daughters, mothers, or sisters. Females always hunt alone, although cubs will accompany their mothers to learn to hunt once they reach the age of five to six weeks.
The size of a home range depends entirely on the availability of prey. Cheetahs in southern African woodlands have ranges as small as 34 km2 (13 sq mi), while in some parts of Namibia they can reach 1,500 km2 (580 sq mi).
The cheetah cannot roar, but ranks among the more vocal felids. Several sources refer to a wide variety of cheetah vocalizations, but most of these lack a detailed acoustic description which makes it difficult to reliably assess exactly what terms refer to exactly what vocalizations. A short review of the terminology encountered is found in. Some of the vocalizations listed in the literature are:
- Chirping: When a cheetah attempts to find another, or a mother tries to locate her cubs, it uses a high-pitched barking called chirping. The chirps made by a cheetah cub sound more like a bird chirping, and so are termed chirping, too.
- Churring or stuttering: This vocalization is emitted by a cheetah during social meetings. A churr can be seen as a social invitation to other cheetahs, an expression of interest, uncertainty, or appeasement or during meetings with the opposite sex (although each sex churrs for different reasons).
- Growling: This vocalization is often accompanied by hissing and spitting and is exhibited by the cheetah during annoyance, or when faced with danger.
- Yowling: This is an escalated version of growling, usually displayed when danger worsens.
- Agonistic vocalizations: a combination of growls, moans, hisses and the "trademark" cheetah spit, which is most often accompanied by a forceful "paw hit" on the ground.
- Purring: This is made when the cheetah is content, usually during pleasant social meetings (mostly between cubs and their mothers). A characteristic of purring is that it is realized on both egressive and ingressive airstream, as seen and heard on online video and audio.
Diet and hunting
The cheetah is a carnivore, eating mostly mammalian herbivores under 40 kg (88 lb) and that which specialise in eating C3 plants, including the Thomson's gazelle, the Grant's gazelle, the springbok, impala and blesbok. The young of larger mammals such as wildebeests and zebras are taken at times, and adults too, when cheetahs hunt in groups. Guineafowl and hares are also prey. Ostriches are also taken on occasion. In Iran, cheetahs prey on the Chinkara, Goitered gazelle, ibexes and wild sheep.
While the other big cats often hunt by night, the cheetah is a diurnal hunter. It will, however, hunt on moonlit nights during the full Moon as well, where visibility is excellent. It hunts usually either early in the morning or later in the evening when it is not too hot, but there is still enough light.
The cheetah hunts by vision rather than by scent. Prey is stalked to within 10–30 m (33–98 ft), then chased. This is usually over in less than a minute, and if the cheetah fails to make a catch quickly, it will give up. The cheetah has an average hunting success rate of around 50%. Cheetahs can run at a very high speed; in just two seconds they can reach a speed of 75 kilometers per hour. The estimated top speed of the cheetah ranges from 90 to 128 kilometers per hour. Cheetahs refuse to run when their body temperature reaches 40.5 °C.
Running at very high speeds puts a great deal of strain on the cheetah's body. When sprinting, the cheetah's body temperature quickly elevates. If it is a hard chase, it sometimes needs to rest for half an hour or more.
The cheetah kills its prey by tripping it during the chase, then biting it on the underside of the throat to suffocate it; the cheetah is not strong enough to break the necks of most prey. The bite may also puncture a vital artery in the neck. Then the cheetah proceeds to devour its catch as quickly as possible before the kill is taken by stronger predators.
Data from 367 runs by three female and two male adults, with an average run distance of 173 m, showed that hunting cheetahs can run 58 miles (93 km) per hour. A recent study that followed five African cheetahs indicated that cheetahs relied most heavily on acceleration. Most chases involved extreme maneuverability more than speed. The study indicated that cheetahs seemed to rarely run close to 60 mph or more; on most hunts they reached 30 to 35 mph, but they accelerated and changed direction much more rapidly than any other land animal.
The diet of a cheetah depends on the area in which it lives. For example, on the East African plains, its preferred prey is the Thomson's gazelle. This small antelope is smaller than the cheetah, which makes it an appropriate prey. In contrast, in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the main species of the cheetah's prey preference is the significantly larger nyala, which can weigh up to 130 kg (290 lb) in the male. Cheetahs look for individuals that have strayed some distance from their group, and do not necessarily seek out old or weak ones.
Interspecific predatory relationships
Despite their speed and hunting prowess, cheetahs are largely outranked by other large predators in most of their range. Because they have evolved for short bursts of extreme speed at the expense of their power, they cannot defend themselves against most of Africa's other predator species. They usually avoid fighting and will surrender a kill immediately to even a single hyena, rather than risk injury. Because cheetahs rely on their speed to obtain their meals, any injury that slows them down could essentially be life-threatening.
A cheetah has a 50% chance of losing its kill to other predators. Cheetahs avoid competition by hunting at different times of the day and by eating immediately after the kill. Due to the reduction in habitat in Africa, cheetahs in recent years have faced greater pressure from other native African predators as available range declines.
The cheetah's mortality is very high during the early weeks of its life; up to 90% of cheetah cubs are killed during this time by lions, leopards, hyenas, African Wild Dogs, or even by eagles. Cheetah cubs often hide in thick brush for safety. Mother cheetahs will defend their young and are at times successful in driving predators away from their cubs. Coalitions of male cheetahs can also chase away other predators, depending on the coalition size and the size and number of the predator. Because of its speed, a healthy adult cheetah has few enemies.
Relationship with humans
Cheetah fur was formerly regarded as a status symbol. Today, cheetahs have a growing economic importance for ecotourism and they are also found in zoos. White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Florida, which maintains a significant population of cheetahs, has cited that captive management presents challenges because of health, nutrition and socialization of the cats, but that these have been overcome through collaborations among wildlife facilities.
Cheetahs were formerly, and sometimes still are, hunted because many farmers believe that they eat livestock. When the species came under threat, numerous campaigns were launched to try to educate farmers and encourage them to conserve cheetahs. Recent evidence has shown that cheetahs will not attack and eat livestock if they can avoid doing so, as they prefer their wild prey. However, they have no problem with including farmland as part of their territory, leading to conflict.
Ancient Egyptians often kept cheetahs as pets, and also tamed and trained them for hunting. (But not domesticated i.e., bred under human control.) Cheetahs would be taken to hunting fields in low-sided carts or by horseback, hooded and blindfolded, and kept on leashes while dogs flushed out their prey. When the prey was near enough, the cheetahs would be released and their blindfolds removed. This tradition was passed on to the ancient Persians and brought to India, where the practice was continued by Indian princes into the twentieth century. Cheetahs continued to be associated with royalty and elegance, their use as pets spreading just as their hunting skills were. Other such princes and kings kept them as pets, including Genghis Khan and Charlemagne, who boasted of having kept cheetahs within their palace grounds. Akbar the Great, ruler of the Mughal Empire from 1556 to 1605, kept as many as 1,000 cheetahs. As recently as the 1930s, the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was often photographed leading a cheetah by a leash.
Cheetahs are still tamed in the modern world. One example is Burmani, who has been raised in England at Eagle Heights wild animal park from the age of three months. He was bred in a deer park in Germany. He is so tame that he has lost his hunting instinct.
Cheetah cubs have a high mortality rate due to predation by other carnivores, such as the lion and hyena, and perhaps genetic factors. It has been suggested that the low genetic diversity of cheetahs is a cause of poor sperm, birth defects, cramped teeth, curled tails, and bent limbs. Some biologists even believe that they are too inbred to flourish as a species. Note, however, that they lost most of their genetic diversity thousands of years ago (see the beginning of this article), and yet seem to have only been in decline in the last century or so, suggesting that factors other than genetics are mainly responsible.
Cheetahs are included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of vulnerable species (African subspecies threatened, Asiatic subspecies in critical situation) as well as on the US Endangered Species Act: threatened species - Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Approximately 12,400 cheetahs remain in the wild in twenty-five African countries; Namibia has the most, with about 2,500. Another 50 to 60 critically endangered Asiatic cheetahs are thought to remain in Iran. There have been successful breeding programs, including the use of in vitro fertilisation, in zoos around the world.
Founded in Namibia in 1990, the Cheetah Conservation Fund's mission is to be the world's resource charged with protecting the cheetah and to ensure its future. The organization works with all stakeholders within the cheetah's ecosystem to develop best practices in research, education and ecology and create a sustainable model from which all other species, including people, will benefit.
The South African Cheetah Conservation Foundation has close links and assists in training and sharing program successes with other countries where cheetahs live, including Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Iran and Algeria. The organization's international program includes distributing materials, lending resources and support, and providing training through Africa and the rest of the world.
Re-introduction project in India
Asiatic cheetahs have been known to exist in India for a very long time, but as a result of hunting and other causes, cheetahs have been extinct in India since the 1940s. A captive propagation project has been proposed. Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh told the Rajya Sabha on 7 July 2009, "The cheetah is the only animal that has been described extinct in India in the last 100 years. We have to get them from abroad to repopulate the species." He was responding to a call for attention from Rajiv Pratap Rudy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "The plan to bring back the cheetah, which fell to indiscriminate hunting and complex factors like a fragile breeding pattern is audacious given the problems besetting tiger conservation." Two naturalists, Divya Bhanusinh and MK Ranjit Singh, suggested importing cheetahs from Africa, after which they will be bred in captivity and, in time, released in the wild.
However, the plan to reintroduce the African cheetahs to India has been suspended after discovering the distinctness between the cheetahs from Asia and Africa, having been separated between 32,000 to 67,000 years ago.
In popular culture
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (January 2013)|
- In Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1523), the god's chariot is borne by cheetahs (which were used as hunting animals in Renaissance Italy). Cheetahs were often associated with the god Dionysus, whom the Romans called Bacchus.
- George Stubbs' Cheetah with Two Indian Attendants and a Stag (1764–1765) also shows the cheetah as a hunting animal and commemorates the gift of a cheetah to George III by the English Governor of Madras, Sir George Pigot
- The Caress (1896), by the Belgian symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921), is a representation of the myth of Oedipus and the Sphinx and portrays a creature with a woman's head and a cheetah's body (often misidentified as a leopard's).
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Acinonyx jubatus.|
|Wikispecies has information related to: Acinonyx jubatus|
- Species portrait Cheetah; IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group
- Cheetah at the Encyclopedia of Life
- Biodiversity Heritage Library bibliography for Acinonyx jubatus
- Cheetah Conservation Fund
- Save China's Tigers to Fund Wild Cat Conservation Worldwide
- De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust
- On the Chase With Cheetahs - slideshow by Life magazine
- Fake Flies and Cheating Cheetahs: measuring the speed of a cheetah
- Mutant Cheetahs: information on color variants of cheetahs
- 110km/h Cheetah attack gazelle Video showing cheetah's speed, running mechanics, and hyenas stealing a cheetah's prey.
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