The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is an atypical member of the cat family (Felidae) that hunts by sight and speed rather than by stealth. It is the fastest of all terrestrial animals and can reach speeds of over 110 km/h (60 mph) in short bursts.
The cheetah's body is svelte and muscular, though it seems slender and almost fragile in build. Its chest is deep and its waist narrow. It has a small head and short muzzle, high-placed eyes, large nostrils, and small round ears. The fur of the cheetah is fauve yellow with round black spots and black tear lines on the sides of the muzzle. The adult animal weighs from 39 to 65 kg. Its total body length is from 112 to 135 cm, while the tail can measure up to 84 cm.
The genus name, Acinonyx, means "no-move-claw" in Greek, while the species name, jubatus, means "maned" in Latin, a reference to the mane found in cheetah cubs. It is the only cat that cannot completely retract its claws. Even when retracted, the claws remain visible and are used for grip during the cheetah's acceleration and manouvering.
The English word "cheetah" comes from the Hindi chiitaa, which is perhaps derived from Sanskrit chitraka, meaning "the spotted one". Other major European languages use variants of the medieval Latin gattus pardus, meaning "cat-leopard"; French "guépard"; Italian ghepardo; Spanish guepardo; or German Gepard.
If you are having little luck spotting them in the Kruger, you can guarantee to see cheetah in the Lowveld by visiting Hoedspruit's Endangered Species Breeding Project.
Reproduction and social life
Females give birth to 3 to 5 cubs, after a gestation of 90 to 95 days. The cubs weigh from 150 to 300g at birth. They leave their mother between 13 and 20 months after birth. The cheetah can live over 20 years. Unlike other felines, the adult females do not have true territories and seem to avoid each other. Males sometimes form small groups, especially when they came from the same litter.
Cheetahs are carnivores, eating mostly mammals under 40kg, including gazelles, impala, gnu calves, and hares. Prey is stalked to about ten meters' distance, then chased. A hunt is usually over in less than a minute and if the cheetah fails to make a quick catch, it will often give up rather than waste energy.
Cheetahs are found in the wild only in Africa, but in the past their range extended into northern India and the Iranian plateau, where they were domesticated by aristocrats and used to hunt antelopes in much the same way as is still done with members of the greyhound family.
The cheetah prefers to live in an open biome, such as semi-desert, prairie, and thick brush. In the Kruger National Park, they are most commonly sighted in the great basaltic plains around Satara Restcamp.
Cheetahs have unusually low genetic variability and high abnormal sperm count. It is thought that they went through a prolonged period of inbreeding following a genetic bottleneck during the last ice age.
They probably evolved in Africa during the Miocene epoch (26 million to 7.5 million years ago), before migrating to Asia. Now extinct species include: Acinonyx pardinensis (Pleocene epoch), much larger than modern cheetahs and found in Europe, India, and China; Acinonyx intermedius (mid-Pleistocene period), found over the same range; and Miracinonyx inexpectatus, Miracinonyx studeri, and Miracinonyx trumani (early to late Pleistocene epoch), found in North America.
Economic importance for man
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. Because cheetahs are far less aggressive than other big cats, cubs are sometimes sold as pets. This is an illegal trade, because international conventions forbid private ownership of wild animals or species threatened with extinction.
Cheetahs were formerly hunted because many farmers believed that they ate livestock. When the species came under threat, numerous campaigns were launched to try to educate farmers and encourage them to conserve cheetahs.
Cheetah cubs have a high mortality rate due to genetic factors and predation by carnivores, in competition with the cheetah, such as the lion and hyena. Certain biologists now claim that they are too inbred to flourish as a species.
Cheetahs are included on the IUCN list: vulnerable species (African subspecies threatened, Asiatic subspecies in critical situation) as well as on the US ESA: threatened species - Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).
Cheetahs in art and literature
In Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1523) the god's chariot is borne by cheetahs (which were used as hunting-animals in Renaissance Italy).
The Caress (1896), by the Belgian symbolist painters|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).
Cheetahs sometimes turn up as exotic pets, and one is portrayed as such in a piece of art deco sculpture in "polished chrome and ebony", circa 1925, from the Wiener Werkstätte (the Vienna Workshops).
André Mercier's Our Friend Yambo (1961) is curious French biography of a cheetah adopted by a French couple and brought to live in Paris. It is seen as a French answer to Born Free (1960), whose author, Joy Adamson, produced a cheetah biography of her own, The Spotted Sphinx (1969).
Clare Bell's Tomorrow's Sphynx (1986) is an unusual story from the point of view of a misfit cheetah living on an abandoned Earth far in the future. Young adult.
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