If you have a passion for cats, or an interest in anything fast, then you’ll probably know a bit about cheetahs. Want to find out even more? Well you’re in the right place!
Quick, agile, and sprinkled with spots, these big cats are the world’s fastest land animals.
And, in this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the cheetah – including informative and fun facts about their survival, and how you can get involved in cheetah conservation.
First, some cheetah facts
How fast can a cheetah run?
The cheetah has a top speed of about 120 kilometres per hour.
But, cheetahs are like olympic sprinters, and can only maintain this speed for short bursts of time.
What allows cheetahs to run so fast?
There are quite a few cheetah adaptations that have allowed this creature to earn its title as the fastest land animal. Here are some of the features that make them so speedy:
- They have a lightweight, slender frame that weighs between 21 and 72 kilograms.
- 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.
- In order to maintain their grip at high speed, a cheetah’s claws are semi-retractable. This also makes it easy to identify a cheetah’s pawprints because, unlike other cats, their prints will have tell-tale claw marks at the toes.
- They use their long tails to keep their balance while hunting at high speeds.
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.
This is because cheetahs prefer dry, hot climates, but aren’t fond of deserts or tropical areas – and certain areas in southern Africa ticks all the right boxes.
In fact, areas like savannahs and dry forests are where cheetahs are most commonly found.
However, another interesting cheetah fact is that a small population of cheetahs can be found in the Sahara desert.
What do cheetahs live in?
Cheetahs do not live in dens or burrows. Instead, they rest in tall grasses or under trees.
What do cheetahs eat?
Cheetahs mostly target small antelope, like springbok and Thomson’s gazelles, when on the hunt for their next meal.
They will sometimes hunt larger antelope like kudu. And, every now and again, you may spot them preying on much larger animals such as giraffes, buffalos, ostriches and zebras.
What sounds do cheetahs make?
Some of the most easily distinguishable cheetah sounds include purring, meowing – also known as a bleating – 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. They do this by urinating at certain locations to let other cheetahs know that this is their home territory.
And, in the case of females, these smells also signal that they are looking for a mate.
Further reading: Four reasons why the environment needs elephants
What is a group of cheetahs called?
Cheetahs are the only wild cats, other than lions, that live in groups. These groups of cheetahs are known as “coalitions” and are usually made up of a group of brothers.
Female cheetahs that have cubs are solitary animals. But, if the female isn’t currently rearing cubs she might hang out with other cheetahs – most often her own brothers or sisters.
What are cheetah’s predators?
Technically cheetahs don’t have any predators, because they aren’t preyed on by any other animals.
But, a large number of cheetah cubs are killed by other predators, like lions.
In fact, the mortality rate of cheetah cubs is around 70%, and most of those fatalities are lion-related. This means that most cheetah cubs aren’t able to reach maturity and reproduce.
Another contributing factor to the cheetah’s mortality rate is that their food is often stolen by other predators – like lions, leopards, and wild dogs – as well as scavengers such as vultures and hyenas.
What about cheetah babies?
Cheetahs don’t have a seasonal fertility cycle. This means that you could spot a baby cheetah, or cheetah cub, at just about any time of the year.
Cheetah embryos take about three months to mature after conception and there are usually three to five cubs born in a single litter.
Like many cat species, cheetah cubs are born blind, and only start walking at around two weeks.
They are also born with a kind of “mohawk” of long downy hair running from the top of their heads down their backs. They lose this spiky crown as they grow up.
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 cub by the scruff of its neck.
As the cubs grow up, cheetah mothers will use their tails and a series of specific sounds to guide their young from place to place.
Cheetah cubs will drink from their mother until they are about three to six months old, and start eating meat when they are between five and six weeks old.
The mother will also bring home wounded, young, or weak prey for the cubs to practise their hunting skills on.
It’ll take many months of practice before a young cheetah gets to secure a kill by itself.
Most cubs will hang around with their mom until they are about one or two years old and then gradually move away.
What is a cheetah’s lifespan?
Cheetahs often live for ten to 12 years in the wild, but can survive up to 20 years in captivity.
Are cheetahs friendly?
Cheetahs are not an active threat to humans, and are rather docile compared to other wild cats.
But, cheetahs are still wild animals, and you should never attempt to touch a wild cheetah. This is important for your own safety, as well as for the cheetah’s well-being.
How many types of cheetahs are there?
The cheetah is the only species of its genus, Acinonyx.
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 cheetahs, have higher population numbers, but these have still declined in recent years.
Leopard vs cheetah: What’s the difference?
They’re both spotted African cats, so it’s easy to get confused. But here are some of the main differences between leopards and cheetahs:
- Cheetahs are taller than leopards, but less stocky, with slighter frames.
- Leopards have irregularly spaced black rosettes – rose-shaped markings – spread across their pelts, whereas cheetah’s pelts are uniformly covered in lots of black spots.
- Cheetahs have black “teardrop” patterns running down the inner corners of their eyes towards their mouths. Leopards don’t have these.
- As we’ve already noted, cheetahs don’t roar, but leopards do.
- Some cheetahs form groups, but all leopards are solitary.
- Cheetahs tend to have more cubs in a single litter – about three to five. Leopards have about two to three.
- Cheetahs are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, but leopards are nocturnal, meaning they are active at night.
- Leopards like to climb and spend time in trees, but cheetah’s paws, claws and ankles are designed for running at high speed rather than climbing. This means you’re more likely to find cheetahs on the ground, while leopards can often be found napping in a tree. Cheetahs will use trees as lookout posts.
- 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. But, cheetahs use open spaces and their speed to catch their prey.
- Leopards store their larger kills in trees. Cheetahs, on the other hand, usually abandon their larger kills. This is one of the cheetah habits that GVI wildlife conservation volunteers in South Africa are currently studying.
Further reading: 14 of the best travel conservation blogs to follow
Now, some facts about cheetah’s conservation status
Are cheetahs endangered?
The Southern African cheetah is considered “vulnerable” and not “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Species.
But, in 2016, a group of researchers published a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America (PNAS), stating that the conservation status of the cheetah should be changed to “endangered” due to the significant drop seen in their population numbers.
Why are cheetahs becoming endangered?
According to the PNAS report, cheetah populations may be more vulnerable than previously thought. We’ve listed the five main reasons why below.
1) The migration of human beings to wild areas, and the overdevelopment that followed led 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 for around 9% of the cheetah’s historical territory to be preserved.
2) 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 poaching, as well as the possibility of being caught by farmers trying to protect livestock.
3) Some private game reserves believe that cheetahs are not as much of a tourist attraction as the Big Five animals, like lions or elephants. This makes it more difficult to promote investing in cheetah conservation.
4) Cheetahs naturally face stiff competition in the wild from other predators, especially lions, and scavengers, like hyenas. In predator-dense areas, this has an impact on their survival.
5) Because cheetahs have been separated due to human development, the pool of individuals that are able to breed has been reduced. This has affected their genetic diversity, making them more vulnerable to diseases and genetic abnormalities.
The aim of the Cheetah Metapopulation Project, which GVI contributes to, is to build on the genetic diversity of the cheetah population through effective wildlife management.
How many cheetahs are left in the world?
Today there are around 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild.
Researchers believe that this small and decreasing number of cheetahs is because a large number of these animals live in unprotected areas.
Further reading: Fascinating facts about Africa’s endangered animals
Why are cheetahs important?
As predators, cheetahs are responsible for keeping the antelope population in balance. If these animals aren’t hunted, the herd would become too big, and have a negative impact on the environment.
Also, because cheetahs are often chased away from their prey, they are responsible for feeding other animals – like lions, hyenas, and vultures.
Other predators, and even scavengers might have needed to hunt more often if cheetahs weren’t around.
And, we have so much more to learn about the world’s fastest land animal, and the role it plays in African ecosystems.
How can I get involved in cheetah conservation?
Here are some of the best ways to get involved in cheetah conservation:
- Create awareness in your area around the biggest challenges facing cheetah populations – like habitat destruction, poaching and smuggling.
- Donate to organisations like Action Change or the Cheetah Conservation Fund. When donating to Action Change, make sure to request that your funds go towards our wildlife conservation efforts in South Africa.
- Join our cheetah research project in Limpopo, South Africa.
These types of efforts can go a long way in making an impact in cheetah conservation, and addressing the concerns that are affecting cheetah populations.
Further reading: Ten of the best organisations to follow to help endangered animals
Contribute towards GVI’s cheetah conservation research projects
Cheetah kill utilisation study
Learning more about how often cheetahs hunt and how much of the kill they actually consume gives us valuable information.
For example, these findings help park managers to get a better idea of which efforts would be most effective in cheetah conservation.
In fact, in 2016, our then base manager in Limpopo, Richard Wilks, made an interesting observation. He noticed that cheetahs in Karongwe Private Game Reserve, which GVI partners with, seemed to abandon their kill often and very readily.
His hypothesis was that because the park was a very predator-dense area, the cheetahs chose to abandon their kill instead of facing stronger predators.
This finding had a significant impact on the management of the reserve. Why?
The reserve management now knew that these cheetahs would need to kill more antelope in order to consume the amount of meat they needed to survive.
So, reserve managers working in predator-dense parks would need to ensure that there were more antelope in the park in order to maintain a healthy cheetah population.
The reserve management also started observing and tracking other aspects of cheetah behaviour. This helped them to see how many times cheetahs were securing a kill, as well as how much they actually ate before abandoning it.
This research was informally known as the cheetah kill utilisation study. Today, the project accepts volunteers from all over the world. It aims to contribute towards the data collection needed to reach a significant finding regarding cheetah kill and utilisation.
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 that need to be in place to ensure accurate data collection, and how this data is used to provide local and international partners with actionable insights.
As a volunteer, you’ll be contributing directly to cheetah conservation efforts. But, the skills you’ll learn on this project will also assist you in carrying out other wildlife conservation research projects across the globe.
You’ll also be supported before, during and after your program by our support staff, base manager in Limpopo, as well as our science officer. These GVI staff members will assist you for the duration of your time on the project.
Cheetah Metapopulation project
In addition to contributing to the Cheetah Kill Utilisation project, volunteers could also get involved in the Cheetah Metapopulation Project.
This project forms part of research that’s taking place in the park we partner with.
As a participant, you’ll be involved in activities that add towards our understanding of cheetah genetic diversity throughout Southern Africa – in both private and national parks.
Late in 2016, discussions around increasing the cheetah population in the park we work with began.
The park had one female, but no males, and they were looking to grow their cheetah population in the best way possible.
Experts advised park managers against bringing in younger cheetahs who had grown up in areas where there weren’t many predators, like the Karoo.
And, because cheetahs have a low genetic diversity, conservationists would need to actively manage the population.
The reason for this is that taking a cheetah from an environment with few predators, and placing it in an environment where there are many predators may mean that the animal will not be able to adapt to, or survive in its new surroundings.
After careful consideration, the conservationists decided to introduce a coalition of male cheetahs. Although the males were from a less predator-dense area, they would be able to protect one another from larger predators, like lions.
This group of brothers also had a different genetic makeup to the park’s female cheetah. And so, the cheetah population’s genetic diversity could be strengthened through breeding.
And, because they learn from their elders, the resulting cubs would grow up to be vigilant of predators.
This study has exciting implications, because the findings can give reserve staff a much better idea of how to introduce new cheetahs successfully.
Previously, predator-dense reserves were reluctant to introduce cheetahs, due to their poor survival rate.
So if it can be proven that this method works, more parks are likely to introduce additional cheetahs, which will help to increase the total cheetah population.
To help out with data collection aimed at cheetah conservation, be sure to fill out an application form.
You can also join our other wildlife conservation programs in South Africa, like the two-week Wildlife Research in South Africa expedition. Or, if you’re under 18, the South African Wildlife Conservation teen program.
You can also combine a passion for marine and wildlife conservation by signing up for GVI’s African Tropical Island and Savannah Conservation project.
We also have two wildlife conservation internship opportunities available in South Africa. They are our three-month internship, and our six-month internship – which includes a placement with a local partner.
In addition to these 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 and Seychelles.
Find out more about GVI’s cheetah conservation opportunities, and see how you can make an impact in the conservation of the world’s fastest land animal.