Image by Encyclopædia Britannica
The cheetah is the fastest land mammal in the entire world: they can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in three seconds and they can nimbly and suddenly turn at extremely high speeds. Every part of the cheetah's body is built for speed. Large nostrils, lungs, liver, heart, and adrenal gland help them breath easily and run for a long time; a greyhound body, light bones, small collarbones, vertical shoulder blades, flexible spines and hips that lengthen the cheetah’s stride and help them accelerate; a tail that helps them turn quickly. Because of this, cheetahs can sprint up to 71 mph, and consistently run 50-62 mph. However to sustain this insane speed, a cheetah loses a lot of energy and creates more heat than can be released, making most of these bursts of speed less than one minute long. The cheetah also uses its furry camouflage and exceptional eyesight, as well as the black ‘tear’ streaks down their face that help them see, to sneak up on their prey further limiting the amount of time they have to sprint. Cheetah’s have such good eyesight that they depend on their eyes more than noses, and can often be seen scanning the landscape from a kopje or termite mind. Unlike other big cats, the cheetah’s teeth are very small because their large nostrils don’t leave enough room for the roots needed to anchor bigger teeth. Because of this, cheetahs are forced to suffocate their prey; these enlarged nostrils and lungs also help them breathe while doing this. If the hunt is successful (about half the time) the cheetah must drag the kill to a hiding place. Cheetahs are smaller than other big cats and their lack of big teeth limits their fighting skills causes them to lose about 50% of their prey to lions, hyenas, and even vultures. This prey includes small antelope, larger animals like warthogs and kudu, and game birds and rabbits. Cheetahs, unlike other big cats, are not nocturnal. They hunt in the early morning and late afternoon.
Cheetahs used to live across the world, but now their habitat has shrunk dramatically. There are five different types of cheetahs: one in Southern Africa, one in eastern Africa, one from Nigeria to Somalia, one from northwestern Africa, and one in Asia. In Africa cheetahs are extinct in 13 countries, and in Asia the cheetah lives only in Iran and is critically endangered.
Cheetahs have about three cubs that they raise for up to two years; they then leave the cubs, who stay together for 6 months. Then, the females will leave the group. Female cheetahs are solitary unless they have cubs, but males usually live in small groups, often with littermates, called coalitions. Cheetah cubs have a greyish back that also helps them blend in with the grasses. Adult cheetah’s fur also helps them camouflage with the environment around them. Each cheetah's spots are different and this helps researchers to identify individuals. Cheetahs live in areas with large amounts of land, but other than that they have a wide variety of lands they can live with, including grasslands, savannahs, dense vegetation and mountainous terrain. Cheetahs make a variety of squeaks, “eeaows”, chirps, barks and growls, but they do not roar.
Why Are They Endangered?
All species of cheetahs are endangered, but the Asiatic one in northeastern Iran is critically endangered, with the largest population numbering only about 12. The four other species that live in Africa collectively number about 9,000 - 12,000. There are several problems facing cheetahs, including habitat loss, low genetic diversity, high cub mortality rate, lions and hyenas, and farmers. Until about 11,700 years ago, cheetahs could be found in North America and across Afroeurasia. Then, with the end of the last ice age, cheetahs (and many other mammals) disappeared from Europe and North America. Most cheetahs in Asia also went extinct. This was the first of a series of periods where the cheetah population quickly shrank, making cheetahs more and more inbred. This is called a bottleneck and severely decreases genetic diversity, making cheetahs more susceptible to diseases, increasing they’re infant mortality rate (which is as high as 95%, though predators also contribute to this high number), and lowering their ability to reproduce. In protected areas, cheetahs are still in danger because of competition from lions and hyenas. Because of their smaller teeth, they are often unable to defend themselves or their prey. In non-protected places, humans threaten cheetahs. This is often because cheetahs, as their habitat is turned into grazing land and towns, are forced to prey on livestock, and farmers and herders must defend their livestock. Poaching, and accidental trapping and shooting also hurt cheetahs. Humans also kill their prey.
The main reason the Asiatic cheetah is almost extinct is somewhat different. In the 14th and 16th centuries cheetahs were kept by royalty in Asia for sport and as pets. Although there were a large number of cheetahs in captivity, they’re wasn’t much captive breeding, which took a huge toll on not only the Asiatic cheetahs but also African cheetahs who were imported into Asia as the population decreased. By the early 1900s Asiatic cheetahs population had decreased dramatically and now there are only about 50.
Image by Smithsonian's National Zoo
Image by Joel Sartore
Image by Tom Brakefield
Image by Smithsonian's National Zoo
One of the main reasons cheetahs are endangered is loss of habitat. As their natural habitat decreases, they are forced to hunt livestock and are often killed by the livestock’s owners. This also happens to other big cats. This is why some organizations are creating apps that notify herders when lions are near, cheetah-proof fences, and dogs that are trained to scare cheetahs away. In this way, cheetahs aren’t killed, but herders and farmers can still raise their livestock.
What Can You Do?
You can donate or raise money for organizations dedicated to creating reserves or helping farmers and predators co-exist.