CatSG

Cheetah

Acinonyx jubatus

IUCN Red List: Vulnerable

Weight: 35-65 kg
Body length: 113-140 cm
Tail length: 60-84 cm
Longevity: up to 14 years, 20 years in captivity
Litter size: 4-6 cubs

Description


King cheetah

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is, based on molecular evidence, most closely related to the puma (Puma concolor) and the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi). Currently five subspecies of cheetah are recognised:

  • A. j. hecki in Northwest Africa
  • A. j. fearsoni in East Africa
  • A. j. jubatus in Southern Africa
  • A. j. soemmerringi in Northeast Africa
  • A. j. venaticus previously in North Africa to central India, presently only remaining in Iran

The cheetah has a tawny-coloured coat covered almost entirely with solid black spots, unlike the spots of a leopard (Panthera pardus) that are rosette shaped. Each cheetah has a unique spot pattern, often used for identification purposes. Cheetahs are easily recognisable by their heavy black lines extending from the inner corner of each eye to the outer corner of the mouth, often referred to as ‘tear lines’.

The coat colour and spot pattern of cheetahs may vary slightly - in arid, desert regions cheetahs are generally smaller and paler in colour whereas the King cheetah has much larger spots, often merging into stripes. This rare variation in the coat pattern results from a single-locus recessive genetic mutation. As it is a genetic mutation, the King cheetah is not considered as a sub-species. Individuals with this specific coat pattern are found in a small area of southern Africa. Even rarer is the spotless cheetah, a completely tawny-coloured cheetah with no black markings, last sighted in 2011 at the Athia Kapiti Conservancy in Kenya.

The cheetah is well known for being the fastest land mammal and is built for speed with an elongated body and long legs. Cheetahs have numerous morphological adaptations for speed, including:

  • Long limbs, large thigh muscles and a very flexible spine - enables cheetahs to take strides up to 7 m and cover about 29 m/s.
  • Semi-retractable claws - the cheetah cannot completely retract its claws thereby giving extra grip when running and turning at high speeds.
  • A long tail - the tail is about half the head body length and helps the cheetah to maintain balance during their high speed hunts
  • Enlarged lungs, heart and nasal passages and smaller canines relative to other felids - a reduction in the size of roots of the upper canines allows a larger nasal aperture for increased air intake which is critical for allowing the cheetah to recover from its sprint while it suffocates its prey by throttling it.

The English name ‘cheetah’ comes from the Hindi word ‘chita’, meaning ‘spotted one’. The scientific name for cheetah is Acinonyx jubatus, where Acinonyx means ‘non-moving claws’ and jubatus means ‘maned’ or ‘crested’, referring to the mantle that cubs have on their neck and back.

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Arabic

fahd al sayad

Botswana (Ju/hoan Bushman; Seswana)

la'o; lengau, letlots

Bournouan

botolo bogolo

Burkina Faso

marukopta

Cameroon (Fufuldé)

siho

Democratic Republic of Congo (Kasanga)

kisakasaka

Ethiopia (Amharic)

abo shamani

French

guépard

German

Gepard

Namibia (Heikum Bushman; Ju/hoan Bushman)

/uayb; la'o

Kiswahili

duma, msongo

Russian

Asiaskii gepard

Somalia

haramacad, dharab, horkob

South Africa (Afrikaans; Zulu)

jagluiperd; ngulule

Spanish

guepardo, chita

Zimbabwe (Shona)

dindingwe, ihlosi

Status and Distribution

The cheetah is globally listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. The subspecies A. j. venaticus remaining only in Iran and the subspecies A. j. hecki in northwest Africa are classified as Critically Endangered. The cheetah is listed as possibly extinct in Eritrea and as regionally extinct in Afghanistan, Burundi, Cameroon, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, India, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malawi, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Western Sahara. in Swaziland the cheetah was reintroduced. 

Cheetahs are well-adapted to dry conditions and were formerly found in savannas and arid environments right across Africa, including North Africa, all the way to the Middle East and down to south-east India. However, the cheetah only remains in 10% of its hitoric range in Africa. Today the cheetah is primarily found throughout the drier parts of sub-Saharan Africa and is still quite widely distributed in southern and eastern Africa, with two remaining strongholds in Namibia/Botswana and in Kenya/Tanzania. However, their range is increasingly fragmented and highly restricted. The species mainly declined in western, central and northern Africa. In Asia the cheetah has disappeared from almost its entire historic range - Iran is the only country where a small population of Asiatic cheetah persists. The main causes for its disappearance were probably the depletion of its wild prey base, habitat alterations, direct killing and the illegal capture of live cheetahs. 76% of known cheetah range lies outside of protected areas. 

A large part of the current cheetah population lives outside protected areas in regions where lions and spotted hyenas have been extirpated. Density and abundance vary widely according to environmental conditions. In the Serengeti plains the density was estimated to range from 0.8 to 1.0 / 100 km² but seasonally cheetahs have been found to congregate at densities up to 40 / 100 km². Density in well managed protected areas was estimated at 1 / 100 km² and the density in largely unprotected areas was estimated at 0.25 / 100 km² individuals. The density in Saharan habitat was estimated at 1 / 4000 km². All known cheetah populations are relatively small and for many countries their numbers are not known. The number of mature individuals is estimated at 6674 animals and the number of subpopulations at 29. Most estimates are based on applying density estimate of 1 adult per 100 km² to the defined resident range and few are based on research. 

Cheetah status and population estimates

Region/Country

Status and estimated population

Southern Africa

4,190 adults

Angola 

Present but unknown population size

Botswana

1800

Mozambique

  <50

Namibia

2000

South Africa

  550

Zambia

  100

Zimbabwe

  400

Eastern Africa

1960 adults 

Kenya 

   793

Tanzania

569-1007

Western, Central and Northern Africa

440 adults

Southern Algeria, Ahaggar and Tassilli National park

Small populations 20-40 (A. j. hecki)

Benin, Pendjari Biosphere Reserve, Parc du W-Benin

5-13 (A. j. hecki)

Burkina-Faso

Poorly known (A. j. hecki)

Chad

Confirmed presence only in norhtern central Saharan part

Egypt

Extremely rare or even extinct

Mali

No recent information (A. j. hecki)

Niger

Records and evidences of presence (A. j. hecki)

Togo

Indication of presence of few individuals (A. j. hecki)

Iran (subspecies A. j. venaticus)

70-100

Distribution area of the cheetah in Africa (red = extant, orange = possibly extant, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015).

Habitat

The cheetah inhabits open grassland and savannah habitat. It is also found in dry forest, semi-desert, open woodlands and shrubland and is absent from the tropical rainforest. In the central Sahara, the cheetah can be found in high mountain habitat which has slightly more rainfall than the surrounding desert. The cheetah in Iran inhabits plains and saltpans, eroded foothills and desert ranges with precipitation lower than 100 mm per year. It occurs up to an elevation of 2,000 – 3,000 m and on Mt.  Kenya cheetahs were recorded up to 4,000m. 

Cheetah habitat in Kwara, Nigeria.
Two cheetahs resting in the shadow in the Serengeti.

Ecology and Behaviour

The cheetah is mainly active during the day. Whilst this diurnal activity is believed to reduce competition with nocturnal predators, such as lions and spotted hyenas, recent studies have shown that cheetahs are surprisingly active at night and that this activity is positively correlated with the amount of moonlight available.

The social organisation of cheetahs is unique among felids. After cheetahs leave their mother, male and female litter mates will usually stay together for about six months before splitting and going their separate ways. Once split, females will remain solitary while males will either be solitary or form a coalition, or group, with other males. Coalitions usually consist of 2-3 males, usually related individuals, but can also be unrelated individuals. Male coalitions are more likely to gain and maintain territories than solitary males.

Whilst females are non-territorial, male cheetahs can establish small territories that typically contain resources such as prey to attract females. However, not all males are able to acquire a territory; coalitions are more able to hold territories than single males as they are more powerful and therefore have a competitive advantage. Non-territorial females and males have large and overlapping home ranges. The sizes of home-ranges vary immensely between the studies that have been carried out in different areas. In Kruger National Park and Matusodona National Park home-ranges for both semi-nomadic females and males are >200 km², in Serengeti National Park they are around 800 km² and in Namibia they are on average 1647 km². Territories established by territorial males are significantly smaller than home-ranges and will rarely overlap as these are areas that contain defensible resources such as prey, water and mates.

Males, whether territorial or not, scent-mark to advertise their presence by spray-marking, scratching, and defecating on prominent features in the landscape; such features may include termite mounds, shrubs, fallen branches and trees. Marking trees, also known as ‘play trees’ are the preferred feature and are typically large, conspicuous trees to which the cheetah returns repeatedly.

The cheetah is well adapted to living in arid environments and as such is not an obligate drinker, satisfying its moisture requirements by drinking the blood or urine of their prey or by occasionally eating tsama melons.

The reproductive season is year round although birth peaks have been reported during the rainy season in the Serengeti. Both sexes will mate with several partners and a genetic study revealed that cubs of the same litter can have different fathers. Age at first reproduction for females is 24-36 months and 30-36 months for males. Age at last reproduction for females is 10 years and for males up to 14 years. The gestation period lasts for 90-98 days and the inter-birth interval ranges between 15-19 months. Once a female has lost her litter, she will quite readily go into oestrus and conceive. Cheetah cub mortality is high - over two thirds of cubs die during their first two months mostly due to predation by other carnivores, especially lions. In the Serengeti, Tanzania it was found that only 5% of cubs reached independence while in the Kgalakgadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa/Botswana about 35% of cubs survived to independence. Age at independence is around 13-20 months when sub-adults leave their mothers and within 6 months of leaving their mums, females leave their sibling groups.

The cheetah is a high speed cursorial hunter, reaching speeds of up to 93 km/hr during a chase. The cheetah will generally first stalk its prey before chasing the prey at full speed over relatively short distances, seldom more than 300m. When prey is abundant, cheetahs tend to hunt every 2-5 days except when a female has cubs, then hunting becomes a daily activity.

Cheetahs in Kwara, Nigeria.
Male cheetah marking.
Cheetah cub.
Cheetah in Kwara, Nigeria.

Prey

The cheetah tends to prefer the most abundant prey species with a body mass range from 10-56 kg This includes impalas, Thomson gazelle, springbok, warthog  and other antelopes but will also prey upon smaller animals such as hares or birds. Coalitions of males can take larger prey such as wildebeests and zebra. When cheetahs hunt herd animals they tend to select the less vigilant individuals and depending on the season they capture mostly immature animals. In east Africa the cheetah’s main prey is the Thomson’s gazelle on the plains and the impala in the woodlands. In northern Kenya its major prey are lesser kudu, gerenuk and dik dik and in southern Africa it mainly preys on springbok, greater kudu calves, warthog, impala and puku. In Iran, cheetahs main prey include wild sheep, Persian ibex and cape hares.

Cheetahs rarely defend their kills and as such kills can be stolen by the comparatively larger carnivores such as lions and spotted hyenas. For example, in the Serengeti, Tanzania, cheetahs lose up to 12.9% of their kills, of which 78% were taken by spotted hyenas and 15% by lions. The cheetah rarely scavenges or returns to a previously abandoned kill. 

Cheetah with its kill.
Cheetah hunting.
Cheetahs watching a prey in Kwara, Nigeria.

Main Threats

The main threats to the cheetah are habitat loss and fragmentation, land use change, retaliatory killing and prey base depletion which often leads to higher predation on livestock and therefore to more conflict with humans.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are the main threats and are largely a result of changes in land-use management. Fragmentation and encroachment of the cheetahs’ habitat can result in discontinuous subpopulations, a decrease in prey availability and an increase in predator densities, causing a higher level of interguild competition and increased contact with humans and their livestock. 

In North Africa and Iran the major threat to cheetahs is a reduction in their natural prey base, predominantly caused by human activities such as hunting and livestock grazing. Another threat is the illegal trade of skins and live cheetahs. It is quite common to shoot the mother and to take the cheetah cubs in order to sell them on the black market and there is an increased trade in cubs from northeast Africa into the Middle East.

Despite intensified conservation and education efforts and the fact that research shows that cheetahs are only responsible for few livestock losses to predators, human-wildlife conflicts are still an issue. Farmers often still consider cheetahs as a problem and a threat to their livelihood. It is thought that excessive tourism and poor wildlife observation practices can affect cheetah hunting success, reproductive success and cub mortality. Cheetahs get occasionally also captured in snares set for the bushmeat trade. 

The cheetah is wide ranging and occurs at very low densities. Thus needs large areas to survive. Most protected areas are not large enough to sustain viable populations and many cheetahs live on farmland. The cheetah is considered to be vulnerable to interspecific competition from other large carnivores, especially lions, which can limit cheetah abundance by killing their cubs or even adults.

Genetic analysis has shown that both captive and free ranging cheetahs exhibit a very high level of homogeneity in coding DNA and have high levels of abnormal sperm. The cheetah appears to have suffered a series of severe population bottlenecks in its history which may have led to inbreeding of few surviving individuals. Based on mitochondrial DNA the first such bottleneck may have taken place during the late Pleistocene extinctions around 10,000 years ago. Although these ancient population bottlenecks are not clear both their causes and consequences could be of significance to cheetah conservation today. This lack of genetic diversity makes the cheetah exceptionally vulnerable and potentially susceptible to diseases.

Conservation Efforts and Protection Status

The cheetah is included in Appendix I of CITES and it is fully protected throughout most of its range. Moreover, the cheetah is included in Appendix I of the CMS. Hunting is prohibited in Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran and Afghanistan. Trophy hunting is permitted in Zimbabwe and in a number of countries it is legal to kill cheetahs in defence of life and livestock. No information is available for Chad and Sudan.

One important conservation measure for the cheetah is the promotion of better livestock management to reduce conflicts with humans. Another measure is the assurance of enough prey availability to the cheetah in an attempt to reduce livestock depredation. Further measures include the improvement of monitoring, surveys and information exchange as well as capacity building, the promotion of human-cheetah coexistence, enforcement of policy and legislation along with the insurance that national land use planning allows viable cheetah populations.

To improve cheetah conservation several networks have been established such as the Global Cheetah Forum and the North African Regional Cheetah Action Group. In addition a Cheetah Conservation Compendium was created by the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group containing a reference library and detailed country information. Most of the range states are involved in the Range Wide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dogs. This program supports the development of Regional Strategies and National Action Plans, according to IUCN guidelines. A global conservation strategy for the cheetah has been developed and several range states have created national action plans or conservation strategies. For southern and eastern Africa regional conservation strategies have been developed. National Action Plans are in place for Benin, Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, South Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Conservation work is challenged at many levels: unstable political situations, non-existent enforcement where conservation regulations are in place, lack of incentives for local people to be engaged in conservation efforts, the need to raise awareness of conservation and environmental issues, little or no capacity and financial means to support a conservation approach and generally pressures from a rising human population.