Nature in Focus: Cheetahs, the Race for Survival
This week we bring you the story of the fastest of all land animals living on Earth: the Cheetah!
They are smaller, smoother and sleeker than any other member of the big cat family.
When you have a look at their aerodynamic body structure – extra-large heart and lungs, narrow waist, flexible spine, long legs and big muscles – it is clear this specimen was made for speed!
But there’s a relevant question being asked by wildlife biologists these days: are Cheetahs fast enough to outrun extinction?
Cheetahs are mainly to be found in sub-Saharan Africa. Some very sparse and fragmented populations are also found in southern Algeria, northern Niger and Iran.
Their natural habitat can vary from grasslands, Savannah, scrub lands and deserts, but generally these cats require open plains to thrive. As they rely on speed when hunting, extensive areas without dense vegetation are their favorite. Dry climates and above sea level altitudes are also preferable.
- The word “cheetah” derives from the Hindi word “Chita” meaning “spotted one”
- Cheetahs can reach a top speed of around 110 kilometres per hour in just over 3 seconds (faster than a sports car accelerates!). Although super fast, they can sustain their maximum speed for only a very short time. Hunting success is a combination of speed, strategy and a camouflage; it involves getting as close to prey as possible and choosing the right time to attack. On average, every second chase results in a kill.
- Often confused with leopards; cheetahs can be recognized by the long black lines spreading from the inside of each eye to the mouth. These so called “tear lines” are believed to serve as an eye protection from the sun and to help them to see long distances when hunting.
- Cheetahs are carnivores and feed on smaller prey, such as springboks, hares, young wildebeest, warthogs, and birds.
- Living in an environment where water is usually scarce, they have the ability to survive on just one drink every three or four days.
- They live in small groups consisting of a mother and her young or a coalition of males (siblings mostly) who hunt together. Adult females usually live in solitude except when they meet for mating.
- Cheetahs are the only big cats that neither roar nor climb trees.
- They purr loudly instead and have an ability to mimic some birds (the sound they produce is called a “chirrup”).
- Cheetahs hunt during the day due to a poor night vision and to avoid competition from stronger predators like lions, leopards or hyenas.
- They have been kept in captivity for over 5000 years because they can be tamed easily in comparison to the other wild cats (we still definitely recommend you do not try!). Kings and emperors used them as pets and hunting partners.
- Approximately 6600 adults remain in the wild today (in contrast to 100,000 in 1900).
- Only about 5% of cubs survive to adulthood.
The cheetah is currently the most endangered big cat in Africa and is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red list. The species currently inhabits just 10% of their historic range.
Cheetahs used to be a common sight in Africa, some parts of the Arabian Peninsula, Asia and even Europe. Currently we are left with sparsely scattered populations found mainly in Namibia, Kenya and a few other African countries.
The Asiatic subspecies (found only in Iran) is critically endangered.
These cats are still being traded illegally as pets and are victims of the fur industry.
Over-hunting, competition with larger predators and local farmers, as well as the loss of genetic variation that comes with a declining population, are the main factors putting the remaining Cheetah population at risk of extinction.
With the expansion of humans, cheetah natural habitat has been reduced drastically. When Cheetahs have difficulty in finding their natural prey, they often attack livestock, which lead to farmers killing them to protect their own livelihood. The felines require large areas of land for survival, so increased human settlements and road constructions pose the biggest threats to their survival.
Conservation strategies are focused on:
- Securing habitats for the long-term survival of Cheetahs and their ecosystems
- Reducing human-Cheetah conflict by implementation of farm management practices that could limit livestock losses from predators
- Conducting conservation research
- Running educational programs directed at the farmers, public and schools
I believe we are still capable of helping these extraordinary cats to win this race for survival, the most important race ever!
For a chance to encounter the fastest of the big cats and help protect the future of the species, check out some of these projects:
Project: Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary
Location: Namibia (home to one third of the world’s entire Cheetah population)
“Get up-close and personal with iconic African carnivores on a volunteering project deep in Cheetah Country, Namibia, home to one third of the world’s entire cheetah population, is the setting for this unforgettable volunteering experience. Situated in a stunning savannah paradise, the Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary provides a safe-haven for injured and orphaned animals, as well as reputed ‘problem carnivores’ that have been relocated because of the threat posed by local farmers. Surrounded by vast grassy plains, majestic mountains and lush vegetation, this is your chance to get hands-on volunteering experience with a host of incredible wildlife.”
Project: Carnivore Conservation and Research
“They say a leopard never changes its spots, but will you change yours in the name of big cat conservation? Leopards (along with cheetahs) are declining fast as these predators have perhaps bitten off more than they can chew when it comes to interacting with local farmers, becoming somewhat unruly neighbours… If we are to ensure that these graceful carnivores continue to stalk the African savannahs long into the future then intervention is required – and that is just what this Carnivore Conservation and Research project hopes to achieve.”
Location: South Africa
“The Wildlife Volunteer & African Safari Tour is the perfect way to experience South Africa. You’ll meet inspiring people, gaze upon awe-inspiring landscapes, and interact with iconic wildlife, and all this whilst helping change things for the better! Setting off in the buzzing Johannesburg, you’ll make your way to the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre, which rescues injured wildlife with the hope of releasing them into the wild. You’ll spend two days helping out where needed and interacting with the animals. You’ll also get to experience wildlife in a different way with a night drive to see nocturnal animals. Then, you’ll volunteer for five days at the Daktari Bush School, which aims to inspire and educate local children to care for their environment. The rest of the tour will take you to the Olifants River and the famous Kruger National Park for some world-class wildlife watching.”
Project: Wildlife Orphanage in South Africa
Location: South Africa
“Whether you live for educating others or love working with animals, this opportunity will surely be one to enjoy. There aren’t many more rewarding experiences than working in a Wildlife Orphanage, so if you want something to tell your friends or wish to better the lives of vulnerable animals, this is the project for you. Based in sunny South Africa, the orphanage plays sanctuary to a host of charismatic creatures including big cats, warthogs and everyone’s favourite: meerkats! You will be at the forefront of their care including replenishing food and water as well as cleaning out their cages – for the duration of your visit, you’ll be ‘mum’!”