Zookeeper Journal

A brief chase.  The cheetah clamps its mighty jaws over the impala's windpipe. It's over. The antelope's death will bring life to the cheetah's cubs, all ten of them! Mother cheetah returns with her prize to the brush where her three-month old cubs wait in relative safety from other predators. But the shade beneath the overhanging limbs provides welcome relief from the boiling sun in Africa's vast savannah, the Masai Mara.

While their mother was away, the cubs under the brush lay low in silence. Now upon mother's return, they squeal with hunger.  Mum drops the young antelope at her cubs' feet and lays down. Lacking strength after the chase, the mother cheetah is unable to ward off lions and hyenas, fearsome opportunists looking to steal her kill, or worse, kill her cubs. This is the moment when her family is most vulnerable.  In time, mother cheetah will be rested, but she's forever vigilant.


Cheetah 

(Acinonyx jubatus)

Status in the wild: Vulnerable


 

It seems like a cruel fact of life for many young animals struggling to survive in the wild.  In fact, lions usually kill 80 percent of cheetah cubs. The cheetah compensates for this by having many offspring. Large litters help assure that at least one will survive. On average, litters consist of four or five cubs. But this cheetah mother gave birth to ten of them! 

Unlike most big cats, cheetahs breed throughout the year. Their gestation lasts 90 to 95 days and can result in the birth of one to eight cubs. At birth, they weigh about half a pound each, their eyes are closed, and their teeth have yet to come in. 

In cheetah society, females are single parents where males play no role in raising cubs. For their first 18 months in life, the cubs will learn from mother all they can about survival in the wild. Then when it's time, the mother leaves her cubs to fend for themselves.  For another six months, the cubs will stay together before they, too, go their separate ways. However, male siblings stay together for life.

The dominant cubs get dibs on the impala, squeezing out the timid ones who must wait their turn. They all saw how the job was done, when mum chased down her prey and clamped her jaws tightly around the impala's neck until it suffocated. She learned the skills of the hunt from her own mum, and her cubs will do the same. Their survival depends on it. However, in the harsh reality of the wild, most of the cubs will not live beyond their first year. Those most timid, who must wait to feed, will probably starve to death, or will likely be taken by lions. 

Cheetahs once roamed throughout much of Africa's open savannahs and in the grasslands of India, southern Russia, Iran, and Pakistan. Today, they occur naturally only in eastern and southern Africa while most others are raised on commercial farms, zoos, and sanctuaries. In the wild, cheetahs prefer the savannahs where they have plenty of room to chase and capture prey, and they do so with amazing speed and agility.

What sets cheetahs apart from other land animals is the fact that they can outrun any of them! Standing 30 inches tall and 140 to 220 inches long, the cheetah's streamlined body comes equipped with four thin but powerful legs able to travel about 24 feet in a single stride; narrow and hard-padded paws with slightly retractable claws give the cheetah 'extra grip' on tough terrain; and a long tail helps the cheetah maintain balance so it can make quick turns at high speeds.  Other available features include a small head with enlarged nasal passages, enabling more efficient breathing, and a spine flexible enough to act as a spring when the cheetah runs. Combined, all these features help propel the cheetah's lightweight, 90 to 140 pound frame at speeds up to 70 mph!  However, the cheetah can only sustain these speeds for short distances before it becomes exhausted.

The cheetah's hunting strategy is specially adapted for speed. First, they will select from a range of prey that includes impalas, gazelles, warthogs, hares, and game birds. Also, cheetahs will look for older or injured animals whose ability to run is impaired. Unlike other big cats, cheetahs hunt mainly by day. They will hunt either alone or in groups consisting of male relatives. These groups can cover large territories, which gives them advantages over lone females who must stay close to their cubs.

With stealth and determination, the cheetah stalks her prey until she gets roughly 30 to 90 feet away. Then, like an arrow released from the archer's grip, the cheetah launches into a run. It's predator versus prey in an explosive test of speed and endurance that will last about 20 seconds. Odds are 50-50 that the hunt will be successful. In this case, reaching out with powerful jaw muscles, the cheetah catches her prey, bringing the chase to an abrupt halt in a cloud of dust. She clamps onto the animal's windpipe and holds for several minutes until it suffocates. Exhausted, the cheetah must rest before she can eat. Of all the big cats, cheetahs have the least amount of strength. After the chase is the moment when she's most vulnerable to opportunists like lions or hyenas looking to steal the cheetah's catch.

 

Female cheetahs typically live solitary lives and are non-territorial . On the other hand, males form coalitions of two to four members and together they protect their own territories for hunting and mating. Territorial disputes between rival coalitions often result in fierce fighting, and even death. Barring accidents or disease, cheetahs can live up to 12 years.

The name 'cheetah' has its origins in the Hindu word 'chita', meaning 'the spotted one.'
  Their tan body is literally covered with many round black spots with tear-shaped black spots around the eyes. They have excellent vision and hearing, along with a nose that is extremely sensitive to a range of smells. Cheetahs often communicate their presence to others by scenting tree trunks, brushes and termite mounds with their urine or faeces.

They can't roar like other big cats, but cheetahs do produce a range of other sounds, from high-pitched yelps to long chirps. When threatened or angered, they will chirp or hiss; when alarmed they will whine or growl; and when cheetahs are content they will purr loudly!

Unfortunately, the status of cheetahs in the wild isn't anything to purr over. In Africa, expanding human communities have reduced the cheetah's habitat considerably. Today, the cheetah is confined mostly to the grasslands and plains of eastern and central Africa. In Asia, the species is almost extinct and can be found only in remote areas of Iran and Afghanistan.  

As a result of dwindling populations, it is now thought that cheetahs face a dire threat from problems associated with inbreeding. Lack of genetic diversity could weaken the animal's immune system, thus reducing their ability to cope with diseases and changes in the environment. Some zoos have gone to great lengths trying to breed cheetahs, but even captive populations are on the decline. Estimates are that there are some 12,000 cheetahs left in the world. 

Zoos are trying to breed cheetahs in captivity, which is one of the hardest things to do. Knowing that female cheetahs live alone in the wild, one effort to achieve breeding success is to keep males and females separated in captivity.  Then once a year researchers will bring them together during ideal breeding conditions, which can last from one to four days, although determining those days is another challenge. An even greater challenge is trying to save cheetahs from disappearing habitat, poachers and disease. More work needs to be done, but there is still hope.

 

 

Sources and Suggested Readings

  •  Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). The BigZoo.com, 21 Mar. 2002.      http://www.thebigzoo.com/Animals/Cheetah.asp
  •  Kellan, Anne, Scents, Science Employed To Get Cheetahs in the Mood, CNN 24 May 2000. "http://www.cnn.com/2000/NATURE/05/24/cheetah.survival/index.htmlh"
  • Garman, Andrew. Cheetah. Wild Cat Species and Distribution. Big Cats Online. 2002.  http://dialspace.dial.pipex.com/agarman/bco/cheetah.htm