The fastest creature on land, the cheetah is perfectly designed for speed. Cheetahs are slight, have thin legs, a deep narrow chest and a very delicate and small skull. All of these traits enable them to reach speeds of 60mph (95km/h). Cheetahs have solid, black spots on their tawny coats and very distinguishing ‘tear stripes’ running from the corner of their eyes down to the corners of their mouths. Unlike the other large cat species cheetahs have claws that are blunt and straight which cannot be fully retracted. This gives them traction when hunting prey such as gazelle.
Cheetahs have been lost from huge areas of their former range.
In Africa they still occur widely, though studies suggest that they have been lost from 76% of their historic range on the continent. Where they are found their numbers are sparse.
In Asia the cheetah was found from the shores of the Mediterranean and the Arabian peninsula, north to the northern shores of the Caspian and Aral Seas, and west through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan into central India. Now cheetahs are known only to survive in Iran where they have been given Critically Endangered status.
Females are able to breed from being two years old, whilst males do not become sexually reproductive until they are three. Litters of 1-6 cubs are raised just by their mother, on average they have three young. Although females are solitary, males may live in small coalitions of two or three individuals.
As well as being able to accelerate from 0-60mph in 3 seconds, cheetahs can also make quick and sudden turns at high speed when they are pursuing prey which makes them excellent hunters. In Africa they often feed on gazelle, springbok and impala. Unlike most other big cats which hunt at night, cheetahs rely on sight, rather than smell and so hunt in the morning or later in the evening. Cheetahs, unlike other African predators, rarely scavenge and do not remain long with their kills, many of which are stolen by other carnivores.
Cheetahs are primarily found in open grassy habitats, but also in dry forest, savannah woodland, semi-desert and scrub. In Iran cheetahs live in desert habitat with very little rainfall. The terrain varies from plains and saltpans, to eroded foothills and rugged desert ranges.
Habitat loss and fragmentation are key issues facing the cheetah. Because cheetahs occur at low densities, conservation of viable populations requires large scale land management planning; most existing protected areas are not large enough to ensure the long term survival of cheetahs.
The lack of wild prey in many areas is also a key threat facing this species.
In addition, cheetahs are often killed or persecuted because they are a perceived threat to livestock, despite the fact that they cause relatively little damage. In Namibia, very large numbers of cheetahs have been live-trapped and removed by ranchers seeking to protect their livestock.
In Iran, the Asiatic Cheetah is threatened indirectly due to human hunting of their prey species. In addition, most protected areas are open to seasonal livestock grazing, which may place huge pressure on the resident ungulate populations.
Unfortunately an emerging threat in Iran is the possibility of further population fragmentation due to increasing developmental pressures from mining, oil extraction, road building and railway construction.
Worryingly, although the current rate of decline is of most concern, there are also issues relating back to extreme losses of individuals in the distant past which has resulted in the species exhibiting remarkably low levels of genetic diversity compared to other felids. This could leave them more vulnerable to disease or infection.
- Promotion of better livestock management is needed to ensure that conflict between herders, livestock and game farmers and cheetahs is reduced as much as possible. These measures include the use of guard dogs to protect herds whilst they are grazing, electric fences and promoting the use of calving kraals.
Several countries, including South Africa, Namibia and Kenya, have developed national action plans or conservation strategies for cheetahs. These plans include:
- Monitoring and surveying cheetahs and sharing the information across their range
- Promoting human-cheetah co-existence, reducing conflict and developing incentives to conserve the animals
- Planning land use on a national scale is to take cheetah populations into consideration
- Improving policy and legislation and raising awareness of cheetahs at a political level
Annie Beckhelling, South Africa
Small worldwide grant
Amy Dickman, Tanzania
African wild dog, lion, cheetah
Worldwide continuation grants
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