All about the cheetah: Fun facts, why cheetahs are facing extinction, and how you can help
Jana Jansen van Vuuren
Posted: September 24, 2021
Quick, agile, and incredibly beautiful, cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animals. But they are also classified as vulnerable and cheetah conservation is important now more than ever.
Ready to learn everything you need to know about the cheetah, and find out how you can get involved in cheetah conservation? Read on.
How fast can a cheetah run?
The cheetah has a top speed of about 120 kilometres per hour.
But, cheetahs are like olympic sprinters, and can only maintain this speed for short bursts of time.
What allows cheetahs to run so fast?
There are quite a few cheetah adaptations that have allowed this creature to earn its title as the fastest land animal.
They have a lightweight, slender frame that weighs between 21 and 72 kilograms.
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.
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 tell-tale claw marks at the toes.
They use their long tails to keep their balance while hunting at high speeds.
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 Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.
This is because cheetahs prefer dry, hot climates, but aren’t fond of deserts or tropical areas – and certain areas in southern Africa tick all the right boxes. However, another interesting cheetah fact is that a small population of cheetahs can be found in the Sahara desert.
What do cheetahs live in?
Cheetahs do not live in dens or burrows. Instead, they rest in tall grasses or lounge under trees.
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 small antelope, like springbok and Thomson’s gazelles, when on the hunt for their next meal.
They’ll sometimes hunt larger antelope like kudu. And every now and again, you may spot them preying on much larger animals such as giraffes, buffalos, ostriches and zebras.
Some of the most easily distinguishable cheetah sounds include purring, meowing – also known as bleating – and a bird-like chirping or high-pitched barking sound.
Mother cheetahs also use a unique set of sounds to communicate with their cubs.
Like other cats, cheetahs also use smell to communicate. They do this by urinating at certain locations to let other cheetahs know that this is their home territory.
And, in the case of females, these smells also signal that they’re looking for a mate.
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 solitary animals. But, if the female isn’t currently rearing cubs, she might hang out with other cheetahs – most often her own brothers or sisters.
What are cheetahs’ predators?
Technically cheetahs don’t have any predators, because they aren’t preyed on by any other animals.
But, a large number of cheetah cubs are killed by lions.
In fact, the mortality rate of cheetah cubs is around 70%, and most of those fatalities are lion-related. This means that most cheetah cubs aren’t able to reach maturity and reproduce.
Another contributing factor to the cheetah’s mortality rate 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.
What about cheetah babies?
Cheetahs don’t have a seasonal fertility cycle. This means that you could spot a cheetah cub at any time of the year.
Cheetah embryos take about three months to mature after conception and there are usually three to five cubs born in a single litter.
Like many cat species, cheetah cubs are born blind, and only start walking at around two weeks.
They’re also born with a kind of “mohawk” of long downy hair running from the top of their heads down their backs. They lose this spiky crown 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 cub by the scruff of its neck.
As the cubs grow up, cheetah mothers will use their tails and a series of specific sounds to guide their young from place to place.
Cheetah cubs will drink from their mother until they are about three to six months old, and start eating meat when they’re between five and six weeks old.
The mother will also bring home wounded, young, or weak prey for the cubs to practise their hunting skills on.
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 one or two years old and then gradually move away.
What is a cheetah’s lifespan?
Cheetahs often live between 10 and 12 years in the wild, but can survive up to 20 years in captivity.
Are cheetahs friendly?
Cheetahs are not an active threat to humans, and are rather docile compared to other wild cats.
But, cheetahs are still wild animals, and you should never attempt to touch a wild cheetah. This is important for your own safety, as well as for the cheetah’s well-being.
There are five subspecies, two of which, the Asiatic and Northwest African cheetah, are classified as critically endangered.
Sudanese and Tanzanian cheetahs have higher population numbers, but these have still declined in recent years.
Leopard vs cheetah: What’s the difference?
They’re both spotted African cats, so it’s easy to get confused. But here are some of the main differences between leopards and cheetahs:
Cheetahs are taller than leopards, but less stocky, with slender frames.
Leopards have irregularly spaced black rosettes – rose-shaped markings – spread across their pelts, whereas cheetah’s pelts are covered in lots of black spots.
Cheetahs have black “teardrop” patterns that run down the inner corners of their eyes towards their mouths. Leopards don’t have these.
As we’ve already noted, cheetahs don’t roar, but leopards do.
Some cheetahs form groups, but all leopards are solitary.
Cheetahs tend to have more cubs in a single litter – about three to five. Leopards have about two to three.
Cheetahs are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, but leopards are nocturnal, meaning they are active at night.
Leopards like to climb and spend time in trees, but cheetah’s paws, claws and ankles are designed for running at high speed rather than climbing. This means you’re more likely to find cheetahs on the ground, while leopards can often be found napping in a tree. Cheetahs will only use trees as lookout posts.
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. But, cheetahs use open spaces and their speed to catch their prey.
Leopards store their larger kills in trees. Cheetahs, on the other hand, usually abandon their larger kills.
The southern African cheetah is considered “vulnerable” and not “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, and conservationists have made great strides in recovering these cheetah population numbers over the past few years.
GVI works towards the conservation of these cats in Africa.
Why are cheetahs still at risk of becoming endangered?
Bottleneck events are events that largely reduce the size of a population. These events can occur due to natural disasters or human activities, and cheetahs have already faced two of these in the last 100,000 years.
When this event occurs, the remaining members of the affected species start inbreeding, which affects the gene pool of the next generation. This can cause decreased genetic variability and harmful mutations.
And that’s not all that’s affecting cheetah populations today:
1) The migration of human beings to wild areas, and the overdevelopment that followed led 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 for around 9% of the cheetah’s historical territory to be preserved.
You’re most likely to find cheetahs having a nap in long grasses.
2) Cheetahs that live in unprotected areas often come into contact with humans. This means they are at risk of poaching, as well as the possibility of being caught by farmers trying to protect livestock.
3) Cheetahs naturally face stiff competition in the wild from other predators, especially lions, and scavengers, like hyenas. In predator-dense areas, this has an impact on their survival.
5) Because cheetahs have been separated due to human development, the pool of individuals that are able to breed has been reduced. This has led to inbreeding, which has affected their genetic diversity, making them more vulnerable to diseases and genetic abnormalities.
The aim of the Cheetah Metapopulation project, which GVI contributes to, is to build on the genetic diversity of the cheetah population through effective wildlife management.
How many cheetahs are left in the world?
Today there are around 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild.
Contribute towards GVI’s cheetah conservation research projects
Cheetah Kill Utilisation study
Learning more about how often cheetahs hunt and how much of the kill they actually consume gives us valuable information.
For example, these findings help park managers to get a better idea of which efforts would be most effective in cheetah conservation.
In fact, in 2016, our then base manager in Limpopo, Richard Wilks, made an interesting observation. He noticed that cheetahs in Karongwe Private Game Reserve, which GVI partners with, seemed to abandon their kill often and very readily.
His hypothesis was that, because the park was a very predator-dense area, the cheetahs chose to abandon their kill instead of facing stronger predators.
This finding had a significant impact on the management of the reserve. Why?
The reserve management now knew that these cheetahs would need to kill more antelope in order to consume the amount of meat they needed to survive.
So, reserve managers working in predator-dense parks would need to ensure that there were more antelope in the park in order to maintain a healthy cheetah population.
The reserve management also started observing and tracking other aspects of cheetah behaviour. This helped them to see how many times cheetahs were securing a kill, as well as how much they actually ate before abandoning it.
This research was informally known as the Cheetah Kill Utilisation study. Today, the project accepts volunteers from all over the world. It aims to contribute towards the data collection needed to reach a significant finding regarding cheetah kill and utilisation.
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’ll 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 this data is used to provide local and international partners with actionable insights.
In addition to contributing to the Cheetah Kill Utilisation project, volunteers could also get involved in the Cheetah Metapopulation project.
This project forms part of research that’s taking place in the park we partner with.
As a participant, you’ll be involved in activities that add towards our understanding of cheetah genetic diversity throughout southern Africa – in both private and national parks.
Discussions around increasing the cheetah population in the park we work with began late in 2016.
The park had one female, but no males, and they were looking to grow their cheetah population in the best way possible.
Experts advised park managers against bringing in younger cheetahs who had grown up in areas where there weren’t many predators, like the Karoo.
And, because cheetahs have a low genetic diversity, conservationists would need to actively manage the population.
The reason for this is that taking a cheetah from an environment with few predators, and placing it in an environment where there are many predators may mean that the animal will not be able to adapt to, or survive in its new surroundings.
After careful consideration, the conservationists decided to introduce a coalition of male cheetahs. 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 also had a different genetic makeup to the park’s female cheetah. And so, the cheetah population’s genetic diversity could be strengthened through breeding.
And, this means cubs would also grow up to be vigilant of predators.
This study has exciting implications, because the findings can give reserve staff a much better idea of how to introduce new cheetahs to an environment successfully.
Previously, predator-dense reserves were reluctant to introduce cheetahs, due to their poor survival rate.
So if it can be proven that this method works, more parks are likely to introduce additional cheetahs, which will help to increase the total cheetah population.
To help out with data collection aimed at cheetah conservation, be sure to fill out an application form.
We also have two wildlife conservation internship opportunities available in South Africa. They are our three-month internship, and our six-month internship – which includes a placement with a local partner organisation.