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All About Cheetahs: Fun Facts, Why Cheetahs Are Facing Extinction And How You Can Help

By Jana Jansen van Vuuren 6 months ago

If you have a passion for cats, or, in fact, fast cars, it’s likely you’ve read up a bit about the magnificent animal known as the cheetah. Quick, agile, and, at the same time, beautiful, these magnificent cats are the world’s fastest land animal and are, sadly, under severe threat of extinction.

In this post, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about the cheetah, including a series of informative and fun facts, why their survival is under threat and how you can help by partnering with GVI.

First, Some Cheetah Facts

How Fast Can A Cheetah Run?

The cheetah has a top speed of about 60 to 100 kilometres or 40 to 70 miles per hour. However, they are mainly sprinters and can only maintain this speed for short bursts of time.

What Adaptations Allow Cheetahs To Run So Fast?

1. They have a lightweight, slender frame and weigh between 28 and 65 kilograms or 62 to 143 pounds.

2. 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.

3. In order to maintain their grip at high speed, a cheetah’s claws are non-retractable. This also makes it easy to identify a cheetah’s pawprints because, unlike other cats, their prints will have telltale claw marks at the toes. It’s also interesting to note that they use their long fluffy tail for balance while hunting at high speeds.

cheetah paw prints

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 countries like Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. Cheetahs prefer dry, hot climates, but are not particularly fond of deserts or tropical areas. That being said, a tiny population of cheetahs can be found in the Saharan desert. A cheetah’s preferred environment is an open area with some shrubbery cover, such as savannahs and nearby dry forests. 

Further Reading: 6 Animal Species And How They Will Be Affected By Climate Change

What Do Cheetah’s Live In?

Cheetahs do not live in dens or burrows. They will often rest in tall grasses or under trees.

pictures of cheetahs, cheetah sleeping, cheetah lying down, cheetah rolling, cheetah playing

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 smaller antelope, like Springbok and Thomson’s gazelle. They will also sometimes hunt larger antelope like kudu. Very seldom will you find them preying on much larger animals such as giraffe, buffalo, ostrich, and zebra.

What Sounds Do Cheetahs Make?

Cheetahs do not roar, but rather make a unique set of sounds which generations of researchers have been challenged to categorise formally. Some of the most easily distinguishable sounds include purring, a meow also known as a bleat and a bird-like chirping or high-pitched barking sound. Mothers also use a unique set of sounds to communicate with their cubs. Like other cats, cheetahs also use smell to communicate, urinating at certain locations to let other cheetahs know that this is their home territory or, in the case of females, that they looking for a mate.

Further Reading: 4 Reasons Why The Environment Needs Elephants

What Is A Group Of Cheetahs Called?

Cheetahs are the only wild cat, other than the lion, that live in groups. These groups of cheetah are known as ‘coalitions’, and are usually made up of a group of brothers. Female cheetahs who have cubs are usually solitary animals. However, if the female isn’t currently rearing cubs she might hang out with other cheetahs, most often her own brothers or sisters.

pictures for cheetahs, cheetah males, cheetah coalition

A ‘coalition’ of cheetah brothers.

What Are A Cheetah’s Predators?

Technically cheetahs don’t have any predators in that they aren’t preyed upon by other animals. However, a large number of cheetah cubs are killed by other predators, lions in particular. The mortality rate of cheetah cubs is incredibly high, being approximately 70%, and most of those deaths are lion-related. Another threat to cheetahs is that their kills are often stolen by other predators, like lions, leopards, and wild dogs, as well as scavengers, such as vultures and hyenas.

Further Reading: 19 Inspiring And Stunning Gap Year Photos from South Africa

What About Cheetah Babies?

Cheetah’s don’t have a seasonal fertility cycle, which means you have a chance of spotting a baby cheetah, or cheetah cub, at just about any time of the year. They take about three months to mature after conception and there are usually three to eight cubs born in a single litter.

Like your average housecat, cheetah cubs are born blind and only start walking at around two weeks. They are born with a kind of ‘Mohawk’ of long downy hair running from the top of their head down their backs, which they start to lose as they grow up.

pictures of baby cheetahs, cheetah cub, cheetah mohawk

A baby cheetah proudly sporting his silvery ‘Mohawk’.

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 by the scruff of their neck, however, as they grow up she will use her tail and a series of specific sounds to guide them to their new home.

image of baby cheetah's face, baby cheetah portrait

Baby cheetahs already display the distinctive facial markings of adult cheetahs.

Cheetah cubs will drink from their mother until they are about six months old, which is when they will begin eating meat for the first time. Later, the mother will also bring them wounded, young or weak prey so that they can practice their hunting skills. It’ll take many months of practice before a young cheetah gets to secure a kill by themselves. Most cubs will hang around with their mom until they are about two years old and then gradually move away. 

images of cheetahs, cheetahs hunting

A young cheetah learning to hunt.

Further Reading: James Borrell: Let’s Talk About Success in the World of Conservation

What Is A Cheetahs Lifespan?

Females typically live until the age of 15 and males until they are about 10.

Are Cheetahs Friendly?

Cheetahs are not a threat to humans and are rather docile. If you are with a trained field guide you can walk to within a metre of them. However, cheetahs are wild animals and you should never attempt to touch a wild cheetah, both for the safety of the cheetah and for your own personal well-being.

How Many Types Of Cheetah Are There?

The cheetah is the only species of its genus, Acinonyx. That being said, there are five subspecies, two of which, the Asiatic and Northwest African cheetah are classified as ‘Critically Endangered’. The other three, the South African, Sudanese and Tanzanian cheetah have higher population numbers, but these have shown rapid declines in recent years.

Further Reading: How To Choose An Ethical Wildlife Tour Operator

Leopard vs Cheetah: What’s The Difference?

They’re both spotted African cats, so it’s easy to get confused. Here are some of the main differences between leopards and cheetahs.

1. Cheetahs are taller than leopards, but less stocky and have slighter frames.

2. Leopards have irregular black patches across their pelt, whereas cheetahs are uniformly covered with 2000 black spots.

leopard vs cheetah image drinking water

A cheetah drinking on the left, and a leopard drinking on the right. Note the differences in their coat patterns.

3. Cheetahs have unique black ‘teardrop’ patterns running down the inner corners of their eyes towards their mouths. Leopards have no such markings.

cheetah face image, cheetah side and frontal portraitPortrait of a cheetah showing the characteristic ‘tear-stains’.

Leopard side and face portrait.A portrait of a leopard. Note the absence of any black streaks down the sides of the nose.

4. As we’ve already noted, cheetahs don’t roar. Leopards, however, do roar.

5. Some cheetahs, like groups of males, form groups, but all leopards are solitary.

6. Cheetahs tend to have more cubs, about three to eight, in a single litter than leopards do, who have about two to five.

7. Cheetahs are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, whereas leopards are nocturnal, meaning they are active at night.

8. Leopards like to climb and spend time in trees. A cheetah’s paws, claws, and ankles are designed for running at high speed, not climbing. This means you’re more likely to find cheetahs on the ground. That being said, cheetahs have been known to climb a tree every now and then, but, while a leopard can often be found napping in a tree, cheetahs will use trees as lookout posts.

images of cheetahs, cheetah lying downYou’re most likely to find cheetahs having a nap in long grasses.

leopard in treeLeopards, however, prefer to relax in trees.

cheetahs in treeBut, like we said, sometimes you’ll find the odd cheetah in a tree.

9. 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. Cheetahs use open spaces and their incredible speed to catch their prey.

10. Leopards store their larger kills in trees. Cheetahs, on the other hand, often abandon their larger kill to other predators or scavengers. This habit of abandoning their kill is what GVI wildlife conservation volunteers in South Africa are currently studying.

leopard eating in treeA leopard feeding on a kill stored in a tree.

Further Reading: 14 Of The Best Travel Conservation Blogs To Follow

Now, Some Facts About Cheetah Endangerment

pictures of cheetah, cheetah resting in savannahThe numbers of these exquisite cats have declined dramatically over the last 10 years.

Are Cheetahs Endangered?

The Southern African cheetah is considered ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN and not ‘Endangered’. However, a group of researchers published a report in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America), in 2016, arguing that the conservation status of the cheetah should be changed to ‘Endangered’ and that the species should be added to the IUCN Red List due to its drastic population decline.

Why Are Cheetahs Endangered?

As the report from PNAS states, cheetahs might be under greater threat of survival than previously thought. We’ve listed the five main causes of this threat below.

1. The migration of native peoples and the colonisation of Southern Africa lead 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 about 9% the cheetah’s historical territory to be preserved.

2. However, almost 77% of cheetahs live in unprotected areas where they often come into regular contact with humans. This means that they are regularly exposed to poachers, those looking to sell cubs as pets on the black market, as well as farmers who trap, poison or shoot cheetahs to in order to protect their cattle.

3. Most private game reserves believe that cheetahs are not enough of a tourist attraction, unlike lions or elephants, to validate investing a significant portion of their earnings into cheetah conservation.

4. Cheetahs naturally face stiff competition in the wild, from other predators, especially lions, and scavengers, like hyenas.

5. Cheetahs naturally have a very low genetic diversity. Why this might be is still a matter of scientific debate, but the real issue is that cheetah populations have been separated due to human development, further limiting the cheetah’s genetic pool. This leads to deformities and weaknesses if the population is not properly managed. This is the aim of the Cheetah Metapopulation Project, to ensure the genetic diversity of the cheetah population through effective management.

How Many Cheetahs Are Left In The World?

cheetah image, savannah cheetahToday there are only about 7000 cheetahs left in Southern Africa.

In 2005 there were approximately 8000 left in Southern Africa, but today it is estimated to be around 7000. That is nearly 1000 less than a decade ago. Researchers believe that this has to do with the fact that a large number of cheetahs live in unprotected areas and that there aren’t any incentives in place for local communities to protect these animals.

Further Reading: Fascinating Facts About Africa’s Endangered Animals

Why Are Cheetahs Important?

Firstly, as predators, cheetahs are responsible for keeping the antelope population in check. If these animals aren’t hunted, the herd would grow to an enormous size, wiping out their own food supply and starving as a result.  

Secondly, because cheetahs are often chased off their prey, they are responsible for feeding other animals, like lions, hyenas, and vultures. Other predators, and even scavengers might be required to hunt more frequently if cheetahs weren’t around.

And most importantly, the cheetah is one of the most unique creatures on planet Earth. It is the fastest land animal, and one of a series of beautiful wild cats. Wouldn’t it be a shame if future generations weren’t able to see this marvellous animal for themselves?

How Can We Help Cheetahs?

  1. Do not purchase cheetahs on the black market and create awareness around this issue to curb the illegal smuggling of cheetahs.
  2. Donate to organisations like the GVI Trust or the Cheetah Conservation Fund. When donating to the GVI Trust make sure to request that your funds go towards our wildlife conservation efforts in South Africa.
  3. Join our new cheetah research project in Limpopo, South Africa.

Further Reading: 10 Of The Best Organisations To Follow To Help Endangered Animals

Help Save The Cheetahs: Join The GVI Cheetah Conservation Research Project

Cheetah Kill Utilisation Study

pictures of cheetahs, cheetah diet and eatingLearning more about how often cheetahs hunt and how much of the kill they actually consume helps park managers learn more about investing in cheetah conservation.

In 2016, our then base manager in Limpopo, and now Country Director of South Africa, Richard Wilks, noticed that cheetahs in the private game reserve we partner with seemed to abandon their kill often and very readily. His hypothesis was that because the park is a very predator-dense area, the cheetahs abandon their kill in order to avoid being harassed by other predators. This, however, has a significant impact on how the management of the reserve, as these cheetahs would need to kill more antelope in order to consume the amount required for survival. Reserve managers in a predator-dense park would, therefore, need to ensure that there are more antelope in the park in order to maintain a healthy cheetah population.

Richard then started to observe the cheetahs and track how many times they secure a kill as well as how much they actually eat before abandoning it. Informally known as the cheetah kill utilisation study, the project is now at a point where we can start inviting volunteers to contribute to the data collection necessary for coming to a significant finding.

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 will learn how a rigorous conservation study like this is set up, the systems which need to be in place to ensure accurate data collection and how the data will be used to provide local and international partners with actionable insight.

While you’ll be directly contributing to cheetah conservation efforts, the skills you’ll learn on this project will assist you in carrying out wildlife conservation research projects across the globe. This means you’ll both be making a difference and improving your employability at the same time. You’ll also receive comprehensive support from our base manager in Limpopo as well as the science officer who will both be with you on the project the entire time. You’ll also have access to the rest of our field staff at the base as well as our support team in Cape Town.

Cheetah Metapopulation Project

cheetah images, group or coalition of two cheetahs, cheetah resting in savannahCheetahs have a low genetic diversity which means that conservationists need to actively manage the population.

In addition to contributing to the cheetah kill utilisation project, volunteers will also be able to learn about the exciting Cheetah Metapopulation Project, part of which is being carried out in the park we partner with. As has already been mentioned, this project manages cheetah genetic diversity throughout Southern Africa, in both private and national parks.

Late in 2016, discussions around increasing the cheetah population in the park began. The park had one female, but no males. The park managers were advised against bringing in younger cheetahs who had grown up in areas where there aren’t many predators, like the Karoo. The reason for this is that taking an animal from an environment in which it is not under threat from predators and putting the animal in an environment where there are many dangers means that the animal will not be able to adapt and is unlikely to survive.

They, therefore, decided to introduce a coalition of males, who, although they were from a less predator-dense area, would be able to protect one another from larger predators like lions. This group of brothers have a contrasting genetic makeup to the park’s female cheetah and could help grow the population through breeding. The resulting cubs would grow up to be vigilant of predators.

This study has exciting implications if it can be proven that it is successful. Previously, predator-dense reserves have been reluctant to introduce cheetahs, due to their poor survival rate. If it can be proven that this method works, more parks will are likely to introduce additional cheetahs, helping to increase the total cheetah population.

Further Reading: This Is Why You Should Help Protect Elephants

To help out with data collection for the cheetah kill utilisation study be sure to fill out the application form. You can also join our other wildlife conservation programs in South Africa, like the 2 weeks ‘Wildlife Research In South Africa Expedition’, or if you’re under 18, book the ‘African Wildlife Awareness For Under 18s’. You can also combine a passion for childcare with wildlife conservation by joining our ‘Wildlife Conservation and Childcare’ project, or marine and wildlife conservation by booking the GVI  ‘African Marine and Wildlife Conservation’ project. We also have two wildlife conservation internships available in South Africa, a short-term, 3-month internship and a longer-term, 6-month internship which includes a placement with a local partner. In addition to our wildlife conservation projects in South Africa, we also run marine and wildlife conservation projects around the world, in locations like Costa Rica, Mexico, Fiji, Thailand (Chiang Mai and Phang Nag) and Seychelles. Contact us if you’d like to know more. It’s our goal to build a network of people around the world passionate about protecting the environment and empowering communities around the world.   

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