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Where Cheetahs were found in 1900 (above).

Where Cheetahs are found today (below).

 
 

Cheetah-Acinonyx jubatus

The fastest animal on earth is disappearing before our very eyes.

What does it look like?

The name "cheetah" comes from a Hindi word meaning, "spotted one".

An adult has yellow or tan fur with solid black round or oval spots measuring .75 to 1.5 inches in diameter. The spots cover nearly the entire body; only the white throat and abdomen are unmarked. The tail ends with 4-6 black rings and a bushy, white tuft. The spot pattern plus the ring pattern on the tail enable the identification of specific cheetahs (by humans).

The head is small with eyes set high and a black "tear mark" running from the inner aspect of each eye down to the mouth. The teeth are small to accommodate large nasal passages. An adult cheetah weighs 80-140 pounds, is about 32 inches tall at the shoulder and 48-56 inches long with another 28-32 inches in tail - males are a little larger than females. Cheetahs are sometimes mistaken for leopards - much heavier animals with rosette shaped spots and no tear marks.

Where does it live?

Not so long ago cheetahs inhabited an area from North Africa to India, but they are now commonly found only in sub-Saharan Africa (south of the Sahara Desert).

The Cheetah's land is vastly disappearing at an alarming rate.

Their range includes sparse sub-desert, steppe (a treeless plain), medium and long-grass plains.

They need an environment with bushes, tall grass and other large plants in order to hide from predators.

What does it eat?

While most cats are nocturnal predators, the cheetah hunts in early morning and late afternoon. Since it depends on sight rather than smell, it likes to scan the countryside from a tree limb or the top of a termite mound.

Cheetah eat small antelope - Springbok, Steenbok, Duikers, Impala and Gazelle; the young of larger animals - Warthog, Kudu, Hartebeest, Oryx, Roan and Sable; as well as game birds and rabbits. They can even mimic some bird sounds, perhaps to attract them.

One of their favorite catches, Thompson's Gazelle, is a common resident of the east African plains. These small antelopes are about 23-28 inches tall and 28-43 inches long. Cheetahs favor fawns or half-grown antelope and look for animals, which have strayed some distance from the group. They do not seek out old or weak animals.

Other big cats chase only a few hundred meters: the cheetah chases 3.4 miles at an average speed of 45 miles per hour. But the stalk is as important as the sprint: usually it will creep within 50 yards of an intended victim before the final acceleration. Full sprints last about 20 seconds and almost never exceed 1 full minute. If it succeeds in catching an animal the cheetah will suffocate it by clamping the animal's windpipe, sometimes as long as 5 minutes. Very small animals like hares are killed by a simple bite through the skull. But whatever the meal - large or small - the cheetah eats quickly for if challenged it will most often lose.

Cheetahs have unusually clean eating habits: they do not return to their kill nor do they eat carrion; they leave the skin, bones and entrails of their prey. At 6 weeks the young are strong enough to follow the hunt and when they are about 6 months old the mother will capture live prey for them to practice killing

Threat to survival

Throughout recorded history a cheetah pelt was a badge of wealth for its human owner. The animal was killed for its skin by some and captured for its hunting skills by others. But most recently, human excess is probably the major factor dramatically pushing the cheetah toward extinction.

As human populations disproportionately increase in size other species are "squeezed out" - their living space becomes more limited as does their food supply. Many animals feel the pinch and are at great risk of disappearing forever. In 1900 there were only about 100,000 cheetah worldwide - present estimates place their number at 10 to 15 thousand with about 1/10 of those living in captivity.

Namibia has the largest population of wild cheetah - about 2500. Smaller populations exist in Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania while 19 other countries have even fewer.

Protection

The Cheetah Conservation Fund, along with many other organizations, create and manage long-term conservation strategies for the cheetah throughout their range. They work to develop and implement better livestock management practices, eliminating the need for ranchers to kill so many cheetahs.

The CCF also conducts conservation education programs for local villagers, ranchers and school children. Intensive scientific research in cheetah genetics, biology and species survival has continued in order to save this magnificent species.

Sources

Alderton, David. Wild Cats Of The World. New York: Facts on File. 1995.

Brakefield, Tom. Big Cats - Kingdom of Might. Stillwater, MN. Voyageur Press. 1993.

Caro, T.M. Cheetahs Of The Seregeti Plains. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1994.

Cheetah Conservation Fund. Cheetah Facts. Windhoek, Namibia.

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