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Cheetah

Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus and Species: Acinonyx jubatus

The world's fastest land mammal is vulnerable to extinction throughout its range

Physical Description

Built more like greyhounds than typical cats, cheetahs are adapted for brief but intense bursts of speed. They have wiry bodies and small heads. Their coats are golden or yellowish, embellished with many small black spots, and their tails are long with a few black bands and sometimes a white tip. Black stripes run from their eyes down to the corners of their mouths.

Size

Cheetahs grow to between three and a half and four and a half feet long, not including their 30-inch tails. They weigh between 75 and 145 pounds and stand two to three feet tall at the shoulder. Males tend to be a bit more robust and weigh about ten pounds more than females.

Geographic Distribution

Cheetahs live in small, isolated populations mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. They are very rare in southern Algeria and northern Niger, and range from Senegal east to Somalia and south to northern South Africa. A few have been reported from Iran. However, many of their strongholds are in eastern and southern African parks.

Status

The cheetah is listed as vulnerable on the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Animals.

Habitat

Savannas, both open and more densely vegetated, give cheetahs the open areas they need for quick stalks and chases. They are not found in forest areas or wetlands.

Natural Diet

Cheetahs eat primarily hoofed mammals weighing less than 90 pounds, including gazelles and young wildebeest. They will also eat smaller game such as hares, warthogs, and birds.

National Zoo Diet

The Zoo's cheetahs eat ground horse meat and sometimes beef, rabbits, and chicks.

Reproduction

Cheetahs can breed at any time of year but tend to copulate in the dry season, with cubs being born at the onset of the wet season. Females reach breeding age by 21 or 22 months of age. Males live in small permanent groups called coalitions, which are usually made up of brothers. Males are drawn to females in heat, but only one male in a coalition usually mates with the selected female. On average, three cubs are born about three months after mating takes place. Until five or six weeks old, the cubs remain hidden; if she needs to move, the mother carries them from place to place. After five or six weeks, cubs follow their mothers and share her kills. Cheetah cubs wean at about three months old.

Life Span

In zoos, cheetahs may live up to 17 years, though the average is 8 to 12. No one has studied cheetah longevity in the wild, though cub mortality is very high and about 90 percent die before they are 3 months old.

Behavior

Female cheetahs live alone, except when raising cubs. They rarely associate with other cheetahs, except when ready to mate. Males live in small permanent groups called coalitions, which are usually made up of two to four brothers. To avoid lions and leopards, cheetahs usually hunt in the middle of the day. Cheetahs stalk their prey, approaching to within about 50 feet before dashing out from cover and sprinting at the targeted animals. Cheetahs grab their victims' throats and suffocate their quarry within a few minutes. After securing their meal, they may drag it to nearby cover. Despite their best efforts to hide their catches, their kills are often stolen by larger predators and picked at by hordes of vultures. Lions and hyenas also eat cheetah cubs; lions and leopards also kill adults.

Past/Present/Future

Once widespread across arid Africa, into the Middle East and east to India, the cheetah has suffered dramatic declines over the last century. It now lives in Africa, and a few may survive in Iran. Hunted for their spotted coats and because they sometimes attack livestock, they disappeared from many areas. More recently, widespread habitat destruction has fragmented cheetah habitats, isolating many populations. In many areas, the cheetah's prey has been overhunted by people. Scientists have also found that many cheetahs suffer from genetic defects due to inbreeding, possibly the result of a population bottleneck—a sharp decline—that occurred perhaps as far back as 10,000 years ago. Among other things, inbreeding could raise cub mortality, lower cheetahs' resistance to disease, and cause infertility. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 wild cheetahs survive. Cheetah strongholds, where possible, must be connected to allow genetic interchange if this species is to survive. Also, conflict between cheetahs and humans needs to be moderated. For example, in Namibia, ranchers may legally shoot cheetahs that prey on livestock.

Fun Facts

A sprinting cheetah can reach 45 miles per hour within 2.5 seconds. Top speed—up to 64 miles per hour—can only be briefly sustained.

In the 16th century, emperors and other royalty hunted gazelles with trained cheetahs.

A Few Cheetah Neighbors

Thomson's gazelle (Gazella thomsonii): Within its range, this smallish, striped animal is a favored prey of the cheetah.

Beisa oryx (Oryx gazella beisa): A large, long-horned antelope with black stripes on its flanks and face.

Vulturine guineafowl (Acryllium vulturinum): A bare-headed gamebird with dazzling black, blue, and white plumes.

By saving cheetah habitat, we protect these and many other animals.