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The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus, Duma) holds a place in our collective imagination for their exceptional beauty, grace and of course, speed. It is also called hunting leopard as cheetahs were pets for Arabian and Indian princes, used for chasing small game. Their owners valued them above human slaves.

The cheetah is the smallest of the big cats—an average individual is 2 feet 6 inches to 3 feet (76-90 centimeters) at the shoulder and up to 7 feet (2.2 m) long and weighs 130 pounds (60 kg).

Cheetahs superficially resemble leopards but are easily distinguished. The cheetah is more slender, relatively longer and not as powerfully built, hence its nickname 'the greyhound of the cats'. It is graceful, with a small head, carried low when walking , and an inwardly curved back. Its tail is ringed with a white tip while the rest of the cheetah's coat has spots scattered singly rather than in clusters. Another difference, which you'd rather not look at too closely, is the fact that cheetahs do not have the retractable claws possessed by leopards. This fact puts the cheetah outside the cat family as all cats have retractable claws.

The cheetah is a shy, retiring creature and unaggressive. A leopard will fight when cornered, but a cheetah will just growl unless really threatened. Usually, they make tweeting noises and when happy, they purr loudly. The cheetah is a rare animal, elusive and difficult to find, since it stays hidden unless on the hunt.

Cheetahs enjoy their own company and are often solitary, and seen alone. Groups of two or three probably comprise related individuals, outside of breeding season when the male and female both hunt to get food for their young. Gestation lasts three months and animals mature at about three years. A female may produce three or four cubs in a litter, most of which die before maturity. They may be eaten by other predators, starve or fall victim to disease. Adult cheetahs generally live ten or fifteen years.

The cheetah's hunting technique uses their best-known attribute: speed. On the chase, a cheetah can easily reach 60 miles per hour (112 kilometers per hour)—faster than any other four-legged animal. Next fastest is the horse which makes a mere 44 mph (82 kph). A quick dash of one or two hundred yards is the most the cheetah can manage but this is enough to catch fleeing prey. Rather than brute force to dispatch the victim, as used by the lions and leopards, cheetahs trip it up and seize it by the throat.

The prey struggles only feebly, its reserves exhausted by the flat out sprint. Usually though, the drained cheetah has to give up and the intended victim escapes. This is because the cheetah cannot turn quickly, unlike most creatures it chases, such as gazelles. Also a gazelle has superior endurance and if it can escape the first rush, its stamina will carry it to safety. Pairs of cheetahs may hunt together to trap small quick antelopes, such as duiker.

Cheetahs rarely catch prey larger than themselves. They are individualistic and specialized gazelle predators, although they sometimes hunt juvenile zebra or wildebeest. Cheetah hunting methods need wide open space so the cats are not found in forest or dense vegetation, including tall grasslands. Their range coincides with that of the open dry plains antelopes.

Compared to other big cats, the cheetah's future is the most uncertain. This is as much due to an accident of history, leading to genetic problems, as well as the usual problems of habitat loss and poaching.

About ten thousand years ago the number of cheetahs fell dramatically in a population bottleneck. Various factors may have caused the precipitous drop, but shrinking of their savanna habitat due to the Ice Age, was probably the main culprit. Whatever the cause, the consequences were dire. Down to one last population, the remaining animals were reduced even further to perhaps a dozen or even fewer individuals.

By some amazing stroke of luck these hardy few survived and reproduced to reverse the tide of fortune. By now, though, the damage had been done. The last few of the species had very little genetic variety which has not increased much since their numbers recovered.

So closely related are individual cheetahs that a skin graft between two unrelated individuals is accepted. In most other animals, such as humans, a skin graft say from me to you, would be quickly rejected as foreign tissue.

The problem for cheetahs (and all species) is they need genetic variety to survive environmental changes, especially a new disease. Without enough of the right sorts of genes to cope, cheetahs will die out.

Breeders are very careful to keep pedigrees of cheetahs in zoos and wildlife parks so that inbreeding does not cause further deterioration of the gene pool. Captive cheetah populations could be the only way to save the species from extinction.

Many animals compete with the cheetah for food—lions, leopards, hyenas and smaller cats. For this reason, some ecologists think the cheetah's best chance for survival is outside the parks, where competitor species are less abundant.

Genetically, all cheetahs are very closely related, believed due to a population crash several thousand years ago. They just missed becoming extinct. But perhaps just by a quirk of fate, enough survived to continue a population, and they spread through tropical Africa, and into Asia. But to this day breeders of captive cheetahs keep close watch on the relationships between individuals so that captive breeding programs do not worsen the effects of inbreeding. It is not well-known that a species of cheetah (A. trumani) once inhabited the Great Plains of North America, going extinct about 13,000 years ago. (See information from American Museum of Natural History.) We can only hope the African species does not go the same way.

The outlook is not completely gloomy. Although on the decline, the cheetah is still widespread on the open plains of East Africa, but outside the continent, only a single isolated population survives in Iran. In Kenya, Amboseli, Nairobi, Mara and the Serengeti are the best places to see cheetahs but they may be encountered almost anywhere.


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