Speed - The Cheetah's Greatest Asset
Everything about a cheetah's body is built for speed. They have a flexible spine, large liver and heart, wide nostrils, increased lung capacity, and thin muscular body. They run so fast and stride so long, that only one foot at a time touches the ground. A recent study shows that a sprinting cheetah uses the same mechanics as a rear-wheel-drive car, all its power comes from the back. The cheetah's hind limbs have muscles and fibers suited to power running, whereas those on its fore limbs are better for steering and balance. Car manufacturers have got it right thus far, but they're still struggling to keep up with the cheetah on acceleration. A cheetah can go from 0 - 60 mph in under three seconds, an acceleration Porsche owners can only dream about (they're currently at 4.1 seconds to reach 60 mph).
But Speed Isn't Everything ...
Cheetah's are a bit different from other big cats in Africa. For one, they hunt during the day, so they avoid direct competition from leopards and lions. The black tear marks below their eyes keeps the bright sun light from blinding them while they hunt. Unlike lions, they are solitary animals and this makes them more vulnerable to predators since the mother has to leave her cubs alone while she hunts. Only around 10% of cheetah cubs even make it to adulthood. Cheetah's are not naturally aggressive animals, they run from danger. This makes it easy for other predators to take their kill, and also their young. Cheetahs may be speedy, but tire quickly and expend a lot of energy hunting in this manner. An injury is a disaster for the solitary cheetah.
Cheetah Conservation Status
If you combine some of the cheetah's innate frailties, with pressure on its habitat from farming, resulting in less prey as well as reduced territory, it's not surprising to discover that cheetah are on the IUCN Red List listed as a "vulnerable" species. Many cheetah populations have simply been wiped out by farmers protecting their livestock. A key component to future cheetah conservation is therefore educating farmers about the cheetah, and figuring out a way local communities can benefit from potential tourism dollars spent by those coming to see the cheetah in its natural environment. The cheetah's beauty has also been its curse, as poaching has taken its toll on their numbers too. It is estimated that there are around 12,000 cheetah left in the world today.
Fun Cheetah Facts
- There are only 10,000 cheetahs left in the wild (most of them in Africa)
- Cheetahs can reach a sprinting speed of 114kph (71mph)
- Cheetahs can purr, but they can't roar
- Cheetahs usually live for about 12 years
- A female cheetah raises her cubs alone
- When a cheetah runs, only one foot at a time touches the ground
- Cheetahs are not good climbers
- Cheetahs don't have fully retractable claws
- Algeria is home to 200 cheetahs
- Outside of Africa, wild cheetahs can only be spotted in Iran
- Cheetahs are born with a mantle of bushy back hair which makes them look like a honey badger, fierce little creatures that no predator likes to mess with.
- A cheetah is not part of the "Big Five" on safari, but should be if the list was based on most desirable animals to see on safari!
Where You Are Likely To Spot a Cheetah on Safari?
Cheetah populations are thinly spread throughout Africa over 25 countries, as far north as Algeria, and as far south as South Africa. There is also a small cheetah population in Iran. Namibia in south west Africa has the largest population, with an estimated 3000 cheetah calling this large, sparse country, home. Cheetahs are not so easy to spot, you may have a better chance if you go on safari in winter when the grass is not so high on the open plains (see more about Best Time to Go on Safari)
Cheetah Spotting in East Africa
The best places to take a safari if you want to see cheetahs in the wild include Tanzania's Serengeti National Park (where I saw my first cheetah). You can take part in tracking cheetah for conservation if you stay at Sanctuary Kusini camp. Tanzania's Selous in the south is also home to a relatively large population of cheetah (and wild dogs). In Kenya you are likely to see cheetah in the Masai Mara, check out this fun account of a close encounter with a cheetah!
Cheetah Spotting in Southern Africa
While Namibia has the highest cheetah population in Africa, many live outside of the big national parks, so it may be best to visit one of the excellent cheetah conservation projects listed below. In South Africa check out Phinda Private Game Reserve and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Kruger has a decent cheetah population, but the woodland type foliage in many park areas makes them a little more difficult to spot. Zambia is a great safari destination, your best bet for cheetah is Kafue National Park. If you're on safari in Botswana, your best chances of seeing cheetah are in Chitabe area of the Okavango Delta and the Linyanti and Kwando Reserves.
Cheetah Centers in Africa
While nothing can top seeing a cheetah in the wild, if you really want to get close to a cheetah, there are several research and rescue centers set up. These research centers are very valuable in educating local communities about cheetahs. Breeding programs also help maintain a stable population.
Namibia is at the forefront of cheetah conservation, it's the headquarters of the Cheetah Conservation Fund and AfriCat Foundation, In Namibia there are quite a few sanctuaries where you can also volunteer if you have the time. They include:
- Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary
- Okonjima home of the AfriCat Foundation
- Cheetah Conservation Foundation Visitors Center
Cheetah conservation centers in South Africa include:
- Cheetah Outreach Center used to call Sper Winery home, but relocated in May 2012 to Paardevlei in Somerset West, just east of Cape Town.
- De Wildt Cheetah Center about an hour's drive from Johannesburg
- Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center near Kruger Park.
More Cheetah Resources:
Cheetah Conservation Fund
Cheetah - BBC Nature
Cheetah Conservation Botswana
Tanzania Cheetah Conservation Program
Cheetah - National Geographic
Close Encounter with a Cheetah on safari in Kenya