Cheetahs are the smallest of the Big Cats: they are the fastest animals in the world and are specialist hunters built for speed. The “hunting greyhound” can outrun, brake harder and turn quicker than any other predator on land and it’s their remarkable manoeuvrability that really gives them the killer edge. Their heart and lungs are over-sized to deliver oxygen to their sprint muscles. Half their muscle mass is packed around their spine, allowing it to flex like a spring. This extends and helps power them to a top speed of up to 70mph. At top speed, a single stride measures 30 feet and a sprinting cheetah spends more than half the time airborne. After sprinting for just 300-400 yards the cats are forced to stop so their muscles can cool down with sprints lasting less than a minute before the cat overheats and has to rest.
Hunting requires finely tuned senses: they use their keen sense of smell to hone in on prey from several miles away and require extensive open spaces to do this, finding it hard to adapt to bush and forest and rough stony terrain as its natural habitat becomes more and more restricted. The black “tear” marks on a cheetah’s face reduce glare and aid in hunting and seeing long distances and their eyes are specially adapted to give them a sharp, wide-angle view. Their 2,000 spots help camouflage them amongst the scrub. They tip the scales at 100lbs, less than a quarter of the weight of a male lion.
Cheetahs can easily travel 60 miles before needing to drink again and can survive without water for 3 – 4 days as they obtain all the moisture they need from their prey. As they move about, the young cats stay in touch using bird-like chirrups. They can cover up to 6 miles a day. In the wild, a male cheetah defends small territories of 60 square miles or less. By contrast, females range across hundreds of square miles. They will visit many male territories on their solitary wanderings in search of a mate.
A coalition of males will sometimes come together to defend territories from rivals. They advertise their ownership scent marks left on rock mounds and favourites trees. These unique marks are made by spraying urine, spreading faeces and clawing tree trunks.
In 1900 there were over 100,000 of these cats in Africa. Today, only 7,000 remain. Habitat loss, the decline in prey species and trophy hunting have all taken their toll. Incredible, isn’t it, that they are still poisoned, shot and trapped when there are barely a handful left.