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Cheetah

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This article is about the animal. For other uses, see Cheetah (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with Leopard.
Cheetah[1]
Temporal range: Pleistocene - Holocene, 1.9–0 Ma
Cheetah Kruger.jpg
A South African cheetah (A. jubatus jubatus)
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Genus: Acinonyx
Species: A. jubatus
Binomial name
Acinonyx jubatus
(Schreber, 1775)
Subspecies

A. j. jubatus
A. j. raineyii
A. j. soemmeringii
A. j. hecki
A. j. venaticus

Cheetah range - 2.png
The range of the cheetah

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a big cat in the subfamily Felinae that inhabits most of Africa and parts of Iran. It is the only extant member of the genus Acinonyx. The cheetah can run as fast as 109.4 to 120.7 km/h (68.0 to 75.0 mph), faster than any other land animal.[3][4][5][6][7][8] It covers distances up to 500 m (1,640 ft) in short bursts, and can accelerate from 0 to 96 km/h (0 to 60 mph) in three seconds.[9]

The cheetah is a unique felid, with its closest living relatives being the puma and jaguarundi of the Americas. This cat is notable for modifications in the species' paws, being one of the few felids with only semi-retractable claws.[10]

Its main hunting strategy is to trip swift prey such as various antelope species and hares with its dewclaw. Almost every facet of the cheetah's anatomy has evolved to maximise its success in the chase, the result of an evolutionary arms race with its prey. Due to this specialisation, however, the cheetah is poorly equipped to defend itself against other large predators, with speed being its main means of defence.

In the wild, the cheetah is a prolific breeder, with up to nine cubs in a litter. The majority of cubs do not survive to adulthood, mainly as a result of depredation from other predators. The rate of cub mortality varies from area to area, from 50% to 75%,[11] and in extreme cases such as the Serengeti ecosystem, up to 90%. Cheetahs are notoriously poor breeders in captivity, though several organizations, such as the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre, have succeeded in breeding high numbers of cubs.

The cheetah is listed as vulnerable, facing various threats including: loss of habitat and prey; conflict with humans; the illegal pet trade; competition with and predation by other carnivores; and a gene pool with very low variability. It is a charismatic species and many captive cats are "ambassadors" for their species and wildlife conservation in general.

Etymology

The word "cheetah" is derived from Hindi 'चीता' (cītā), in turn from Sanskrit citrakāyaḥ, meaning "variegated".[12]

Genetics, evolution, and classification

Illustration of Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus)
Exhibit of Sudan cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii)

The genus name, Acinonyx, means "no-move-claw" in Greek, while the species name, jubatus, means "maned" or "crested" in Latin, a reference to the dorsal crest found in cheetah cubs.[13]

The cheetah has unusually low genetic variability. This is accompanied by a very low sperm count, motility, and deformed flagella.[14] Skin grafts between unrelated cheetahs illustrate the former point, in that there is no rejection of the donor skin. It is thought that the species went through a prolonged period of inbreeding following a genetic bottleneck during the last ice age. This suggests that genetic monomorphism did not prevent the cheetah from flourishing across two continents for thousands of years.[15]

Modern cheetahs of the species A. jubatus have existed since the early Pleistocene epoch. Cheetah fossils have been found in the lower beds of the Olduvai Gorge site in northern Tanzania, dated to this time period. Older species of cheetah like cats (genus Acinonyx) are even older, with the oldest known from the late Pliocene; these fossils are about 3 million years old.[16] These now-extinct species include Acinonyx pardinensis (Pliocene epoch), much larger than the modern cheetah and found in Europe, India, and China; and Acinonyx intermedius (mid-Pleistocene period), found over the same range. The extinct genus Miracinonyx was extremely cheetah-like, but recent DNA analysis has shown that Miracinonyx inexpectatus, Miracinonyx studeri, and Miracinonyx trumani (early to late Pleistocene epoch), found in North America and called the "North American cheetah" are not true cheetahs, instead being close relatives to the cougar.[17]

Subspecies

Although many sources list six or more subspecies of cheetah, the taxonomic status of most of these subspecies is unresolved. Acinonyx rex—the king cheetah—was abandoned as a species after it was discovered that the variation was caused by a single recessive gene. The subspecies Acinonyx jubatus guttatus, the woolly cheetah, may also have been a variation due to a recessive gene. Some of the most commonly recognized subspecies include:[1]

Subspecies of Cheetah
Subspecies Description Image
South African cheetah (A. j. jubatus), also called the Namibian cheetah Lives in Southern Africa where the geographical range has decreased to 21% of the historic range and now includes Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia. In 2007, the population was roughly estimated at less than 5,000 to maximum 6,500 adult individuals.[18][19] In Namibia, the population has increased from about 2,500 in 1990 to 3,500 today.[20] It lives in grasslands, savannahs, arid environments, open fields and mountains, and occupies a medium size range among surviving subspecies.
  • Southern Africa: Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe; possibly extinct in Malawi[2] and Angola[18]
Cheetah (Kruger National Park, South Africa, 2001).jpg
Tanzanian cheetah (A. j. raineyii), also commonly known as East African cheetah Is found in Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda. The total population in 2007 was estimated at 2,572 adults and independent adolescents.[2] This subspecies lives in savannahs, grasslands, plains and forests. Their largest populations are found at Maasai Mara and at the Serengeti ecosystem where the rate of cheetah cubs' mortality varies up to 90%. Tanzanian cheetahs are the second-common subspecies after the most numerous South African cheetah. It is the tallest and largest subspecies. TanzanianCheetah.jpg
Sudan cheetah (A. j. soemmeringii), also known as Central or Northeast African cheetah Found in the central and northeastern regions of the continent and in the Horn of Africa. This subspecies was considered identical to the South African cheetah until a 2011 genetic analysis demonstrated significant differences.[21][22] It is the second-largest of the surviving subspecies. In 2002, the total population was estimated at around 2,000 individuals in the wild.[23] Cheetah at Whipsnade Zoo, Dunstable.jpg
Northwest African cheetah (A. j. hecki), also known as the Saharan cheetah Lives in the northwestern part of Africa. With an estimated total world population of only 250 mature individuals, it is listed as Critically Endangered.[2] It is the palest and smallest African cheetah subspecies.
Asiatic cheetah (A. j. venaticus), also known as Iranian or Indian cheetah Found today only in the deserts of Iran, and is thus the only surviving cheetah subspecies indigenous to Asia. It is the most Critically Endangered cheetah subspecies, and one of the most endangered animals in the world. As of 2015, the wild population is estimated at 50 to 70 individuals,[25][26] found mostly in Iran's national parks. It is among the smallest cheetah subspecies, with a slighter build than the African cheetahs, more fur on the back of the neck, a longer and more powerful neck, thinner tear marks and a smaller head. It is the only subspecies that has a woolly winter coat. Asian cheetah.jpg

Characteristics

Cheetah portrait showing the black "tear mark" running from the corner of the eye down the side of the nose
Cheetah paws showing the blunt, semi-retractable claws

The cheetah's chest is deep and its waist is narrow. The coarse, short fur of the cheetah is tan with round black spots measuring from 2 to 3 cm (0.79 to 1.18 in) across, affording it some camouflage while hunting. There are no spots on its white underside, but the tail has spots, which merge to form four to six dark rings at the end. The tail usually ends in a bushy white tuft. The cheetah has a small head with high-set eyes. Black "tear marks" running from the corner of its eyes down the sides of the nose to its mouth keep sunlight out of its eyes and aid in hunting and seeing long distances. Its thin and fragile body make it well-suited to short bursts of high speed, but not to long-distance running.

Agility, rather than raw speed, accounts for much of the cheetah's ability to catch prey. Cheetahs can accelerate four times as fast as a human (thanks to greater muscle power) and can slow down by 14 kilometers per hour in one stride. They can hunt successfully in densely vegetated areas.[29]

Adult cheetahs are 70 to 90 cm (28 to 35 in) tall at the shoulder. Males are slightly taller than females and have slightly bigger heads with wider incisors and longer mandibles.[16] Measurements taken of wild cheetahs in Namibia and East Africa indicate that females range in head-and-body length from 113 to 140 cm (44 to 55 in) with 59.5 to 73 cm (23.4 to 28.7 in) long tails, and weigh between 21 and 63 kg (46 and 139 lb); males range in head-and-body length from 113 to 136 cm (44 to 54 in) with 60 to 84 cm (24 to 33 in) long tails, and weigh between 28.5 and 65 kg (63 and 143 lb).[30]

Comparative illustration of a leopard (left) and cheetah (right)

Compared to a similarly sized leopard, the cheetah has generally a shorter body, but a longer tail and is taller. The cheetah's paws have semi-retractable claws (known only in three other cat species: the fishing cat, the flat-headed cat and the Iriomote cat), offering extra grip in its high-speed pursuits. The ligament structure of the cheetah's claws is the same as those of other cats; it simply lacks the sheath of skin and fur present in other varieties, and therefore, with the exception of the dewclaw, the claws are always visible. The dewclaw is much shorter and straighter than that of other cats.

Adaptations that enable the cheetah to run as fast as it does include large nostrils that allow for increased oxygen intake, and an enlarged heart and lungs that work together to circulate oxygen efficiently. During a typical chase, its respiratory rate increases from 60 to 150 breaths per minute.[14] While running, in addition to having good traction due to its semi-retractable claws, the cheetah uses its tail as a rudder-like means of steering[31] to allow it to make sharp turns, necessary to outflank prey animals that often make such turns to escape.

Cheetah skull

Unlike true big cats of subfamily Pantherinae, the cheetah can purr as it inhales, but cannot roar. By contrast, the big cats can roar but cannot purr, except while exhaling. The cheetah is still considered by some to be the smallest of the big cats. While it is often mistaken for the leopard, the cheetah does have distinguishing features, such as the aforementioned long tear marks that run from the corners of its eyes to its mouth, and spots that are not "rosettes". The thinner body frame of the cheetah is also very different from that of the leopard.

The cheetah is a vulnerable species. Of all the big cats, it is the least able to adapt to new environments. It has always proved difficult to breed in captivity, although recently a few zoos have managed to succeed at this. One technique has been to introduce a dog as a playmate and guard dog to enable a captive cheetah to feel less threatened.[32]

Once widely hunted for its fur, the cheetah now suffers more from the loss of both habitat and prey, conflict with humans and the illegal pet trade.

The cheetah was formerly considered to be particularly primitive among the cats and to have evolved approximately 18 million years ago. However, new research suggests the last common ancestor of all 40 existing species of felines lived more recently than about 11 million years ago. The same research indicates that the cheetah, while highly derived morphologically, is not of particularly ancient lineage, having separated from its closest living relatives (Puma concolor, the cougar, and Puma yaguarondi, the jaguarundi) around five million years ago.[17] These felids have not changed appreciably since they first appeared in the fossil record.

Morphs and variations

King cheetah

A king cheetah showing its distinctive coat pattern

Some cheetahs have a rare fur pattern mutation of larger, blotchy, merged spots. Known as "king cheetahs," they were once thought to constitute a separate subspecies but are in fact African cheetahs; their unusual fur pattern is the result of a single recessive gene.[33] The "king cheetah" has only been seen in the wild a handful of times, but it has been bred in captivity.

The king cheetah is a rare mutation of the cheetah characterized by a distinct fur pattern. It was first noted in what was then Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) in 1926. In 1927, the naturalist Reginald Innes Pocock declared it a separate species, but reversed this decision in 1939 due to lack of evidence; but in 1928, a skin purchased by Walter Rothschild was found to be intermediate in pattern between the king cheetah and spotted cheetah and Abel Chapman considered it to be a color form of the spotted cheetah. Twenty-two such skins were found between 1926 and 1974. Since 1927, the king cheetah was reported five more times in the wild. Although strangely marked skins had come from Africa, a live king cheetah was not photographed until 1974 in South Africa's Kruger National Park. Cryptozoologists Paul and Lena Bottriell photographed one during an expedition in 1975. They also managed to obtain stuffed specimens. It appeared larger than a spotted cheetah and its fur had a different texture. There was another wild sighting in 1986—the first in seven years. By 1987, thirty-eight specimens had been recorded, many from pelts.

Its species status was resolved in 1981 when king cheetahs were born at the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre in South Africa. In May 1981, two spotted sisters gave birth there and each litter contained one king cheetah. The sisters had both mated with a wild-caught male from the Transvaal area (where king cheetahs had been recorded). Further king cheetahs were later born at the Centre. It has been known to exist in Zimbabwe, Botswana and in the northern part of South Africa's Transvaal province.

In 2012, the cause of this alternative coat pattern was found to be a mutation in the gene for transmembrane aminopeptidase Q (Taqpep), the same gene responsible for the striped "mackerel" versus blotchy "classic" patterning seen in tabby cats.[34] The mutation is recessive, which is one reason the pattern is so rare.

Other color variations

Other rare color morphs of the species include speckles, melanism, albinism, abundism, chocolate, erythrism, strawberry, isabelline, golden, Maltese, chinchilla, black-marked, red-cream marked, ticked, charcoal, mosaicism, leucism, lavender-marked, piebaldism, and flavism. Most have been reported in Indian cheetahs, particularly in captive specimens kept for hunting.

The Mughal Emperor of India, Jahangir, recorded having a white cheetah presented to him in 1608. In the memoirs of Tuzk-e-Jahangiri, the Emperor, says that in the third year of his reign, "Raja Bir Singh Deo brought a white cheetah to show me. Although other sorts of creatures, both birds and beasts have white varieties ... I had never seen a white cheetah. Its spots, which are (usually) black, were of a blue color, and the whiteness of the body also inclined to bluishness." This suggests a chinchilla mutation which restricts the amount of pigment on the hair shaft. Although the spots were formed of black pigment, the less dense pigmentation gives a hazy, grayish effect. As well as Jahangir's white cheetah at Agra, a report of "incipient albinism" has come from Beaufort West according to Guggisberg.[35]

In a letter to "Nature in East Africa", H. F. Stoneham reported a melanistic cheetah (black with ghost markings) in the Trans-Nzoia District of Kenya in 1925. Vesey Fitzgerald saw a melanistic cheetah in Zambia in the company of a spotted cheetah. Red (erythristic) cheetahs have dark tawny spots on a golden background. Cream (isabelline) cheetahs have pale red spots on a pale background. Some desert region cheetahs are unusually pale; probably they are better-camouflaged and therefore better hunters and more likely to breed and pass on their paler colouration. Blue (Maltese or grey) cheetahs have variously been described as white cheetahs with grey-blue spots (chinchilla) or pale grey cheetahs with darker grey spots (Maltese mutation). A ticked was shot in Tanzania in 1921 (Pocock); it had only a few spots on the neck and back, and these were unusually small. Another ticked cheetah color-morph was photographed in Kenya in 2012.[36]

Distribution and habitat

A cheetah in the Serengeti savanna

Cheetahs inhabit dry and open areas, such as clayey deserts, steppes, savannahs and grasslands, acacia scrubs and light woodland. They never enter dense forests or thickets. In Africa, cheetahs once occurred in these types of habitat from the Mediterranean to the Cape Peninsula, and in Asia from the northern Arabian Peninsula eastwards to the Deccan Plateau and West Bengal in India. Until the first half of the 20th century, cheetahs were killed by sport hunters and became scarce throughout their range. In South Africa they were hunted to almost extermination by the 1930s. In Arabia, there have not been any reliable records since the 1950s. The Qattara Depression in Egypt was considered their last refuge by the 1960s. In India, they were declared extinct in 1952.[37]

Since the 1950s, cheetahs were eradicated in at least 13 countries by farmers and trophy hunters. Between 1978 and 1994, more than 9,500 cheetahs were killed on Namibian farmlands alone. Today, cheetah populations are small and isolated, with viable populations in about half of the countries where cheetahs survive. Their remaining strongholds are in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and Namibia.[38] The remaining population of Asiatic cheetahs survives in fragmented protected areas around the Dasht-e-Kavir in eastern Iran.[39] In 2008, this population was considered very small, comprising less than 50 reproducing individuals.[40]

Ecology and behavior

Unlike males, females are solitary and tend to avoid each other, though some mother/daughter pairs have been known to be formed for small periods of time. The cheetah has a unique, well-structured social order. Females live alone, except when they are raising cubs and they raise their cubs on their own. The first eighteen months of a cub's life are important; cubs must learn many lessons, because survival depends on knowing how to hunt wild prey species and avoid other predators. At 18 months, the mother leaves the cubs, who then form a sibling ("sib") group that will stay together for another six months. At about two years, the female siblings leave the group, and the young males remain together for life.

Territories

Males

Male cheetah marking his territory

Males are often social and may group together for life, usually with their brothers in the same litter; although if a cub is the only male in the litter then two or three lone males may form a group, or a lone male may join an existing group. These groups are called coalitions. In the Serengeti, it was found that 41% of the adult males were solitary, 40% lived in pairs and 19% lived in trios.[41]

A coalition is six times more likely to obtain an animal territory than a lone male, although studies have shown that coalitions keep their territories just as long as lone males— between four to four and a half years.

Males are territorial. Females' home ranges can be very large and a territory including several females' ranges is impossible to defend. Instead, males choose the points at which several of the females' home ranges overlap, creating a much smaller space, which can be properly defended against intruders while maximizing the chance of reproduction. Coalitions will try their best to maintain territories to find females with whom they will mate. The size of the territory also depends on the available resources; depending on the habitat, the size of a male's territory can vary greatly from 37 to 160 km2 (14 to 62 sq mi).

Scent is an important means of communication among cheetahs. Males mark their territory by urinating or defecating on objects that stand out, such as trees, logs, or termite mounds. When male cheetahs urine-mark their territories, they stand less than one meter away from a tree or rock surface with the tail raised, pointing the penis either horizontally backward or 60° upward.[42] Male coalitions are able to defend the best territories through joint scent-marking.[43] Males will attempt to kill any intruders, and fights result in serious injury or death.[44][45]

Females

Female cheetah and cubs

Unlike males and other felines, females do not establish territories. Instead, the area they live in is termed a home range. These overlap with other females' home ranges, often those of their daughters, mothers, or sisters. Females always hunt alone, although cubs will accompany their mothers to learn to hunt once they reach the age of five to six weeks.

The size of a home range depends entirely on the availability of prey. Cheetahs in southern African woodlands have ranges as small as 34 km2 (13 sq mi), while in some parts of Namibia they can reach 1,500 km2 (580 sq mi).

Vocalizations

The cheetah cannot roar, but ranks among the more vocal felids. Several sources refer to a wide variety of cheetah vocalizations, but most of these lack a detailed acoustic description which makes it difficult to reliably assess exactly what terms refer to exactly what vocalizations. A short review of the terminology encountered is found in.[46] Some of the vocalizations listed in the literature are:

  • Chirping: When a cheetah attempts to find another, or a mother tries to locate her cubs, it uses a high-pitched barking called chirping. The chirps made by a cheetah cub sound more like a bird chirping, and so are termed chirping, too.
  • Churring or stuttering: This vocalization is emitted by a cheetah during social meetings. A churr can be seen as a social invitation to other cheetahs, an expression of interest, uncertainty, or appeasement or during meetings with the opposite sex (although each sex churrs for different reasons).
  • Growling: This vocalization is often accompanied by hissing and spitting and is exhibited by the cheetah during annoyance, or when faced with danger.
  • Yowling: This is an escalated version of growling, usually displayed when danger worsens.
  • Agonistic vocalizations: a combination of growls, moans, hisses and the "trademark" cheetah spit, which is most often accompanied by a forceful "paw hit" on the ground.[46]
  • Purring: This is made when the cheetah is content, usually during pleasant social meetings (mostly between cubs and their mothers). A characteristic of purring is that it is realized on both egressive and ingressive airstream, as seen and heard on online video and audio.[47][48][49][50][51][52]

Diet and hunting

A cheetah suffocating an impala
Three cheetahs at their kill in the Serengeti savanna.

Cheetahs are carnivores preferring medium-sized prey with a body mass ranging from 23 to 56 kg (51 to 123 lb), comprising Thomson's gazelle, impala, blesbok, springbok, Grant's gazelle, reedbuck and duiker. They can feed on these species rapidly before kleptoparasites arrive, and the risk of getting injured while hunting them is minimal. When available they also prey on steenbok, kudu, waterbuck, bushbuck, hartebeest, nyala, sable antelope, bat-eared fox, roan antelope and oribi. Less frequently they prey on ostrich, warthog, wildebeest, gemsbok and zebra.[53] Asiatic cheetahs prey on chinkara, Goitered gazelle, ibex and wild sheep.[54]

The diet of a cheetah depends on the area in which it lives. For example, on the East African plains, its preferred prey is the Thomson's gazelle (somewhat smaller than the cheetah). In contrast, in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the preferred prey is the significantly larger nyala, males of which can weigh up to 130 kg (290 lb).[55] Cheetahs concentrate on individuals that have strayed some distance from their group, and do not necessarily seek out old or weak ones.[citation needed] They do, however, opt for young and adolescent targets, which make up about 50% of the cheetah diet despite constituting only a small portion of the prey population.[56]

A cheetah in pursuit of Thomson's gazelle

Cheetahs hunt by vision rather than by scent. They stalk their prey to within 10–30 m (33–98 ft), then chase it. The chase usually lasts less than a minute; if the cheetah fails to make a kill quickly, it will give up. Cheetahs have an average hunting success rate of 40–50%.[14][57] They are diurnal hunters that hunt early in the morning or late in the afternoon when temperature has cooled down. They also hunt on moonlit nights when visibility allows.[58]

Cheetahs kill their prey by tripping it during the chase, then biting it on the underside of the throat to suffocate it; the cheetah is not strong enough to break the necks of most prey.[citation needed] Rapid deceleration, to enable the cheetah to bite its quarry before the latter can get up and running again, is therefore a crucial component of a successful hunt.[59] The bite may also puncture a vital artery in the neck. Then the cheetah proceeds to devour its catch as quickly as possible before the kill is taken by stronger predators.

Speed and acceleration

A documentary video shot at 1200 fps documenting the movement of a cheetah over a set run

The cheetah is famous for being the fastest land animal.[60] Its hunting success does not, however, depend on raw speed alone, but also on rapid acceleration and deceleration, and an ability to execute drastic changes in direction while moving at speed.[61] Cheetahs can accelerate to 75 km/h (47 mph) within two seconds. Over short distances, their estimated top speed ranges from 90 to 128 km/h (56 to 80 mph), covering up to 7 m (23 ft) with each stride.[citation needed] The highest reliably recorded top speed is 29ms–1, which is about 104 km/h (65 mph).[62] As this is an averaged value, a cheetah's maximum speed is presumably still higher.[63]

Data from 367 runs by five wild adult cheetahs, three female and two male, wearing tracking collars yielded a top speed of 93 km/h (58 mph), with an average of 48 to 56 km/h (30 to 35 mph). Speed increased by almost 10 km/h (6.2 mph) in a single stride, while the average distance covered was 173 m (568 ft). Maximum run distances ranged from 407 to 559 m (1,335 to 1,834 ft). Given the moderate speeds of many chases, the ability to rapidly change direction was likely the crucial characteristic ensuring hunting success.[59][64][65]

During the chase phase of a hunt, the body temperature of cheetahs increases rapidly; chases will not be engaged in if body temperature is higher than 40.5 °C (104.9 °F).[30] During a 375 m (1,230 ft) sprint, the cheetah's respiratory rate increases from 60 to 150 breaths per minute, while body temperature rises to 40.5 °C, which is 2 °C (3.6 °F) above normal.[66] The long-held conception that overheating is the reason for a cheetah abandoning a chase was undermined by a 2013 study.[57]

Interspecific predatory relationships

Despite their speed and hunting prowess, cheetahs are largely outranked by other large predators in most of their range. Because they have evolved for short bursts of extreme speed at the expense of strength, they cannot defend themselves against most of Africa's other predator species. They usually avoid fighting and will surrender a kill immediately to even a single hyena, rather than risk injury. Because cheetahs rely primarily on their acceleration and manoeuvrability to obtain their meals, any injury that impedes their altering speed and direction could essentially be life-threatening.

Cheetahs lose around 10–15% of their kills to other predators,[56] though it was once thought to be as high as 50%.[14] Cheetahs avoid competition by hunting at different times of the day and by eating immediately after the kill. Due to the reduction in habitat in Africa, cheetahs in protected areas face greater pressure from other larger predators, causing them to live outside of reserves and increasingly coming into conflict with humans.[67] In Namibia, where the largest population of wild cheetah lives, 90% of these cheetahs live on farmland.

Reproduction

A cheetah cub

Females reach sexual maturity at the age of 21 to 22 months. Captive cheetahs are receptive for up to 14 days and have an estrous cycle of 3 to 27 days.[16] Male and female stay together for 2–3 days and mate mostly at night. Females give birth after a gestation of 90–95 days. In the wild, litter size is seldom more than six cubs, who stay in the lair for about the first eight weeks. Then they accompany their mother on hunts, but are still nursed up to the age of four months. When cubs leave their mothers and become independent, siblings stay together for some time.[42]

In the Serengeti, average age of independence of 70 observed litters was 17.1 months. Young females had their first litters at the age of about 2.4 years and subsequent litters about 20 months later. Nearly 50% of cubs survived to independence from their mothers. Females reached an average age of 6.2 years, and males of 5.3 years.[68] A genetic analysis of cheetahs in the Serengeti showed that females are polyandrous. Of 47 litters, 10 were sired by two to three males.[69]

Cubs weigh from 250 to 300 g (8.8 to 10.6 oz) at birth. Their nape, shoulders and back is thickly covered with long bluish grey hair, which is considered to act as camouflage from predators.[42] This downy underlying fur, called a mantle, gives them a mane or Mohawk-type appearance; this fur is shed as the cheetah grows older. It has been speculated that this mane gives a cheetah cub the appearance of the honey badger, to scare away potential aggressors.[70]

Cheetah cub mortality is caused by predation from lions, leopards, spotted hyenas and African wild dogs. Of 125 cubs observed between October 1987 and September 1990 in the Serengeti National Park, not more than seven cubs survived to the age of 14 months.[71] This high cub mortality has not been observed in areas where fewer large predators were present. In the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 24 of 67 observed cubs survived to the age of 14 months.[72]

Cheetah cubs often hide in thick brush for safety. Female cheetahs defend their young and are at times successful in driving predators away from their cubs. Coalitions of male cheetahs can also chase away other predators, depending on the coalition size and the size and number of the predator. Healthy adult cheetahs have few enemies since they are able to escape fast.[citation needed]

Relationship with humans

Economic importance

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. White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Florida, which maintains a significant population of cheetahs, has cited that captive management presents challenges because of health, nutrition and socialization of the cats, but that these have been overcome through collaborations among wildlife facilities.[73]

Cheetahs are far less aggressive than other felids, and in some parts of the world are considered a prestigious possession. Cheetah cubs are taken from the wild for the illegal wildlife trade and can be found for sale through street markets and the Internet. However, cheetahs don’t breed well in captivity and legal breeding facilities are unable to meet the demand. Thus, the proliferation of wild cheetah taken for the illegal pet trade has the potential of decimating wild populations. The Cheetah Conservation Fund estimates that hundreds of cheetah cubs are taken from the wild every year to be sold as pets; only about one in six survive.[74]

Cheetahs living outside of protected areas often inhabit farmland, where they are shot by farmers who believe that they eat livestock. Recent evidence has shown, however, that cheetahs will not attack and eat livestock if they can avoid doing so, as they prefer their wild prey.[75] The Cheetah Conservation Fund has designed and implemented programs to prevent predators' conflict with humans. These programs aim at helping the farmers to protect their livelihoods through education, livelihood development, habitat restoration and predator-friendly farming techniques, such as the highly-successful use of Livestock Guarding Dogs.[76]

Taming

A tamed cheetah offered as tribute to the King of Thebes (1700 B.C.)

Ancient Egyptians often kept cheetahs as pets, and also tamed and trained them for hunting, although they did not domesticate it. Cheetahs would be taken to hunting fields in low-sided carts or by horseback, hooded and blindfolded, and kept on leashes while dogs flushed out their prey. When the prey was near enough, the cheetahs would be released and their blindfolds removed. This tradition was passed on to the ancient Persians and brought to India, where the practice was continued by Indian princes into the twentieth century. Cheetahs continued to be associated with royalty and elegance, their use as pets spreading just as their hunting skills were. Other such princes and kings kept them as pets, including Genghis Khan and Charlemagne, who boasted of having kept cheetahs within their palace grounds. Akbar the Great, ruler of the Mughal Empire from 1556 to 1605, kept as many as 1,000 cheetahs.[14] As recently as the 1930s, the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was often photographed leading a cheetah by a leash.

Cheetahs are still tamed in the modern world, much to their detriment as the demand in the illegal pet trade continues. However, their tameability has also allowed many registered institutions to educate the public by training cheetahs as educational ambassadors. One example is Burmani, who has been raised in England at Eagle Heights wild animal park from the age of three months. He was bred in a deer park in Germany. He is so tame that he has lost his hunting instinct.[77]

Conservation status

Cheetah cubs have a high mortality rate due to predation by other carnivores, such as the lion and hyena, and perhaps genetic factors. It has been suggested that the low genetic diversity of cheetahs is a cause of poor sperm, birth defects, cramped teeth, kinked tails, and bent limbs. Some biologists even believe that they are too inbred to flourish as a species.[78] Note, however, that they lost most of their genetic diversity thousands of years ago (see the beginning of this article), and yet have only been in decline in the last century or so, from 100,000 in the early 1900s to 10,000 today, due to loss of habitat and prey, human-wildlife conflict and the illegal pet trade.[79]

Captive cheetah

Cheetahs are included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of vulnerable species (African subspecies threatened, Asiatic subspecies in critical situation) as well as on the US Endangered Species Act: threatened species - Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). In 2014, the CITES Standing Committee recognized cheetahs as a ‘species of priority’ in north-east Africa in their strategies to counter wildlife trafficking.[80]

Approximately 10,000 cheetahs remain in the wild in twenty-three African countries; Namibia has the most, with about 3,500. Another 50 to 60 critically endangered Asiatic cheetahs are thought to remain in Iran. There have been some successful breeding programs in zoos around the world. Additionally, recent research into improving in vitro fertilisation and embryo culture techniques have the potential of consistently producing embryos for transfer.[81]

Founded in Namibia in 1990, the Cheetah Conservation Fund's mission is to be the world's resource charged with protecting the cheetah and to ensure its future. The organization works with all stakeholders within the cheetah's ecosystem to develop best practices in research, education and ecology and create a sustainable model from which all other species, including people, will benefit. The Cheetah Conservation Fund has close links and assists in training and sharing program successes with other countries where cheetahs live, including Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Iran and Algeria. The organization's international program includes distributing materials, lending resources and support, and providing training through Africa and the rest of the world.

Re-introduction project in India

Asiatic cheetahs have been known to exist in India for a very long time, but as a result of hunting and other causes, cheetahs have been extinct in India since the 1940s. A captive propagation project has been proposed. Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh told the Rajya Sabha on 7 July 2009, "The cheetah is the only animal that has been described extinct in India in the last 100 years. We have to get them from abroad to repopulate the species." He was responding to a call for attention from Rajiv Pratap Rudy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "The plan to bring back the cheetah, which fell to indiscriminate hunting and complex factors like a fragile breeding pattern is audacious given the problems besetting tiger conservation." Two naturalists, Divya Bhanusinh and MK Ranjit Singh, suggested importing cheetahs from Africa, after which they will be bred in captivity and, in time, released in the wild.[82]

However, the plan to reintroduce the African cheetahs to India has been suspended after discovering the distinctness between the cheetahs from Asia and Africa, having been separated between 32,000 to 67,000 years ago.[83][84]

In popular culture

Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian, 1523
Cheetah with Two Indian Attendants and a Stag by George Stubbs, 1764–1765
The Caress by Fernand Khnopff, 1887

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Further reading

  • Caro, T. M. (1994). Cheetahs of the Serengeti Plains: group living in an asocial species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-09433-2. 
Great Cats, Majestic Creatures of the Wild, ed. John Seidensticker, illus. Frank Knight, (Rodale Press, 1991), ISBN 0-87857-965-6
Cheetah, Katherine (or Kathrine) & Karl Ammann, Arco Pub, (1985), ISBN 0-668-06259-2.
Science (vol 311, p 73)

External links