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  • Writer's pictureBushwise Student

Cheetah – The Fascinating, Ferocious Feline

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

This blog was by Bushwise Professional Field Guide student Aeden Kuhl. As part of their training, each student submits a researched blog based on a topic of their choice. Opinions contained in these blogs are the student’s.

5 min read

You might know it as ingulule, duma, jagluiperd – or, simply, cheetah. The word cheetah is actually derived from the Hindi word chita, meaning “spotted one”. The scientific name is Acinonyx jubatusthe. Acinonyx is most likely derived from merging two Greek words; akinitos meaning motionless, and onyx meaning nail, in reference to the cheetah’s semi-retractable claws. 

What makes this speedy cat stand out from other species?

A female cheetah, stomach full as if she’s just eaten, walks across a road in the Kruger National Park.

When people think of big cats, the animals that often come to mind are lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs. However, this isn’t entirely correct, as the cheetah is the lone living member of the genus Acinonyx, whereas the other cats mentioned are members of the genus Panthera. The main difference between these genera is the ability to roar; cheetahs lack the floating bone known as the hyoid, which means they are incapable of roaring and instead are known to purr contentedly, or make chirping sounds between a mother and her cubs.

Another minor-yet-noticeable difference between these cats are their claws – cheetahs are one of only four cat species that have semi-retractable claws, which help in high-speed pursuits as they offer extra traction and grip when moving at such accelerated speeds.

How fast can cheetahs really run?

A cheetah looks towards the camera, with blood on its face after just eating a fresh meal.

The sleek, graceful frame of a cheetah is quite literally built for speed, with small heads, long slim legs and flat rib cages, their slender forms minimise wind resistance and lend themselves to being as aerodynamic as possible. Aside from this, they have loose shoulder blades that can store and release energy almost like a spring, and their long tails often act as a rudder, helping to steer and allowing for sharp turns at breakneck speeds. Even their internal organs are made with speed in mind, as their large nostrils and enlarged lungs and heart grant them the ability to pump oxygen more efficiently, ensuring the ferocious feline doesn’t run out of breath while chasing down its prey.

To date, the fastest speed achieved by a cheetah was by a nimble female by the name of Sarah at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio in 2012. Sarah was recorded during a 100-metre sprint doing a top speed of 98 kilometres per hour, flying through the 100-metre dash in a whopping 5,95 seconds – nearly 4 seconds faster than that of Usain Bolt’s 100 metre world record sprint, and more than double his top speed!

What’s the difference between cheetahs and leopards?

A leopard lounging on a tree, completely comfortable in the Greater Kruger National Park.

In the past, cheetahs were often referred to as the ‘hunting leopard’ by nobles, because they could be tamed and used for a sport known as coursing. Knowing this, along with the fact that both cheetahs and leopards are spotted big cats, it’s understandable why these two felines are often confused.

As mentioned above, cheetahs are built for speed, having sleek and slender bodies while sacrificing much of their muscle mass to be as swift and agile as possible. This means cheetahs often only weigh as much as 72 kilograms; whereas leopards are bulky, robust cats. Although cheetahs stand taller at the shoulder, leopards often weigh in as much as 100 kilograms.

Since leopards are such burly beasts, they can easily stalk and ambush their prey, pouncing on them from the long grass before carrying them up onto branches to protect their kill from any scavengers. Cheetahs make use of their speedy stature when hunting, either dashing after their prey until they tire them out, or swiping at their legs, intentionally tripping them up before delivering the final blow of a bite to the neck. Once they’ve made the kill, they need to eat as quickly as possible as they have neither the energy nor the body strength to fight off any prowling predators or scavengers.

From a distance, leopards and cheetahs are easily mistaken, as neither are particularly big and both are covered in spots. On closer inspection however, telling them apart is fairly straightforward. The spots on cheetahs are typically uniform and solid, where leopard spots are not spots at all – instead they are known as ‘rosettes’, due to the resemblance they bear to roses. These rosettes are irregular in size and shape, and can be found splotched across the body and face of leopards. The face of cheetahs is also distinctly different in that the spots previously mentioned do not cover their face, but rather they have recognisable black ‘tear lines’ stretching from the inner corner of their eyes down to the corners of their mouths. These marks are known as “malar stripes”, and are thought to help absorb sunlight and reduce any glare into the cheetah’s eyes whilst hunting. Speaking of eyes, the eyes of these two cats are also notably different, with leopards having bright green or bright blue eyes, and cheetahs having rich, golden-amber coloured eyes.

How endangered are cheetahs, and why?

A female cheetah pauses to survey the landscape in the Kruger National Park.

Cheetahs have teetered on the brink of extinction and, fortunately, bounced back several times over the last few decades, however the population of wild cheetahs has shown a steady decline over the years. According to the Red List of Threatened Species created by the International Union for Conservation, cheetahs are currently assessed as being a Vulnerable Species, with barely more than 6,500 mature individuals worldwide. As of 2022, there was a projected population size reduction of 37% between 2017 and 2032 – which is more than 2,400 cheetahs lost over a period of 15 years! This number is hugely consequential considering how few cheetahs we have left in the world.

The main factors endangering cheetahs today are unfortunately caused mostly by humans. The destruction of habitat and diminishing prey are all a direct result of human population growth, as the more people there are in the world, the more space we occupy, which leaves less and less natural areas for wildlife – such as cheetahs – to inhabit. On top of this loss of natural territory, the growing demand for illegal pets all around the world means that cheetah cubs are trafficked out of Africa at an estimated rate of 300 cubs per year.

Aside from human encroachment and greed, cheetahs face problems within their own populations in terms of breeding and reproduction, as they have a relatively low rate of reproductive success. Having such a diminished population size also leads to circumstances of inbreeding, which greatly reduces the size of the gene pool and in turn leads to other problems like harmful mutations or decreased genetic variability.

Alongside this, since cheetahs are so slight in comparison to other predators roaming the plains, they’re often at a disadvantage in terms of hunting, and will easily lose a kill if they come face-to-face with stronger predators. Their cubs are also easy prey for hyenas or lions, adding to the difficulty they encounter when it comes to successful breeding.

With so many issues facing cheetahs of today, it’s crucial that awareness is raised and spread to prevent this majestic creature from ending up as merely a display in the extinct animals section of museums.

Love cheetahs like Aedan? Learn all about them, and even see them for yourself, on a Bushwise course. Apply today!


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