Cheetahs are best known for their incredible speed, which has earned them their reputation as the fastest animal on Earth. To see one whilst on safari is a real privilege, as these delicate carnivores are amongst the most beautiful (and the most elusive) of all African animals.
Like a million dollar sportscar, everything about the cheetah is built for speed, from their thin, muscular bodies to their increased lung capacity. Adaptations like these allow the cheetah to go from 0 - 60 mph/ 0 - 100 kmph in under three seconds - an acceleration speed that is on par with the fastest production cars created by Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini.
When cheetah run, their stride is so long and so quick that only one foot touches the ground at any given time. The cheetah's hind legs have muscles designed to produce speed, whereas those on its forelegs are adapted for steering and balance. As a result, all of the cheetah's power comes from the back.
The Struggle to Survive
However, being faster than any other animal on the savannah doesn't necessarily guarantee the cheetah hunting success. Although they can reach speeds of up to 75 mph/ 120 kmph, they cannot maintain such speeds for long. Often, prey animals including springbok and steenbok survive by simply outlasting their opponent.
Cheetah hunt during the day in an attempt to avoid competition from nocturnal predators like lions and leopard. However, their smaller size and less aggressive nature makes it difficult for them to defend their kill, and they often lose their meal to other cats or opportunistic scavengers. Many cheetahs are solitary hunters, and it is better to avoid confrontation than risk injury.
Their solitary status also means that female cheetahs must leave their cubs unprotected whilst they hunt. This makes them vulnerable to predation, and as such only 10% of cheetah cubs make it to adulthood. Those that do survive have an average life expectancy of around 12 years, although that is often significantly reduced in the wild.
The Need for Conservation
The difficulties naturally faced by cheetah in the wild are exacerbated by manmade pressures. Growing human populations and the spread of agriculture across much of Africa has resulted in reduced territory for wild cheetahs, as well as a decrease in available prey. Worse, some farmers target them directly in the belief that they pose a threat to livestock.
The cheetah's beautiful spotted skin also makes it valuable to poachers. In 2015, the estimated global cheetah population numbered just 6,700 individuals. As a result, cheetah are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and many organisations throughout east and southern Africa have dedicated themselves to ensuring their survival.
For cheetah welfare groups like the AfriCat Foundation in Namibia, key aspects of cheetah conservation include education, anti-poaching patrols and the relocation of cheetah from farmland areas to reserves and game parks. Ensuring that local communities benefit from cheetah-related tourism is another surefire way to safeguard their future in Africa.
Best Places to See Cheetah
Although cheetah have disappeared from much of their historic range, they can still be found across the continent, from South Africa in the south to Algeria in the far north. The Saharan subspecies is critically endangered and sightings are almost unheard of; however, populations are healthier in east and southern Africa.
Namibia has the highest density of wild cheetah; however, the majority of these live on private farmland. Therefore, the easiest way to see the country's iconic cats is to visit one of its many cheetah conservation projects. Of these, the best include the AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima Nature Reserve and the Cheetah Conservation Fund.
In South Africa, cheetah conservation projects include the Cheetah Outreach Center near Cape Town, and the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center near Kruger Park. Centers like these allow close encounters and are invaluable in educating local communities about cheetah conservation. Breeding programs also help maintain a stable population.
However, there's nothing quite like spotting a wild cheetah on safari. The best places to do so include Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, or the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. South Africa's Phinda Private Game Reserve and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park both have stable cheetah populations, whilst the Chitabe area of the Okavango Delta is your best bet in Botswana.
Fun Cheetah Facts
- Cheetahs can purr, but they can't roar.
- Unlike leopards, cheetahs are not good climbers.
- The black tear marks below their eyes help to keep the sunlight from blinding them while they hunt.
- Outside of Africa, wild cheetah can only be spotted in Iran, where the total population numbers just 40 - 70 individuals.
- Cheetahs are born with a mantle of bushy back hair that helps them to resemble the fierce honey badger. This is a tactic to ward off would-be predators.
- The cheetah is not part of Africa's Big Five, but it is nevertheless one of the most sought-after sightings on safari.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on October 4th 2016.