Few inventions match the speed, acceleration ability, and precision of a cheetah in motion. The spotted cat can outrace any land animal alive. Every part of the cheetah’s body works in harmony to allow it to achieve short bursts of speed up to 70 miles per hour. With a sleek build more like that of a greyhound than of a tiger, lion, or leopard, the cheetah accelerates from o to 40 miles per hour in just three strides. With the longest legs of any feline, it can cover more distance in a single bound—up to 23 feet—greater than any other cat (or any other animal, in fact). The cleat-like claws never retract, helping feet maintain traction. Hard footpads, like treads on a tire, grip the earth. The muscular tail helps the body maintain balance, and acts as a rudder during quick turns. The large heart vigorously pumps oxygen-carrying blood to lean muscles. As a cheetah builds speed, its legs stretch into a fully horizontal plane, and the cat seems to go airborne. Even the uniquely distinguishing “tearstains” that run in dark lines from a cheetah’s eyes to its mouth are thought to reduce glare from the Sun, giving the cat another advantage during a chase.
Such super speed and agility would seem to make catching any prey easy. But the hooked dewclaw, high on the inner paw, doesn’t always find its mark. Cheetahs succeed in capturing their target meals only about half the time. And after a furious chase, the fast cats are drained—and vulnerable to stronger, more pugnacious predators.
Unlike their larger relatives, cheetahs aren’t built for fighting. Their teeth are small, their jaws weak. and they don’t have an aggressive disposition. Ill-equipped to defend the food they catch, cheetahs can only retreat when fiercer competition arrives. Robbed of its meal, the cheetah faces hunger—or mother energy-draining hunt.
Cubs, especially, are at risk. Only about i in 20 cheetahs born in the wild—even within protected borders like the Serengeti’s—make it to adulthood. Cubs’ survival largely depends on their mother’s skills. She alone must protect them and provide for them and, more important, teach them to hunt. At about three months, babies begin their lessons, observing how their mother stalks prey, chases it, and wrestles it to the ground. Over the next year. cubs practice hunting skills by pouncing on mom, play-fighting with siblings, and tumbling in the high grass. They must perfect these techniques if they are to survive.
Size: Shoulder height 85cm; length 180cm to 220cm, including 70cm tail; weight 35kg to 65kg.
Distribution: Largely restricted to protected areas or the regions surrounding them; absent from densely forested areas.
Status: Uncommon, with individuals moving over large areas; active by day and frequently seen in national parks.