Cheetah

Range and Conservation Status

Cheetah have disappeared from huge areas of their historic range. They still occur widely, but sparsely, in Africa, but Durant et al (in press) estimate that cheetah have disappeared from 88% of their historic range on the continent. Of their remaining range, only 21% is protected.

Southern and Eastern Africa are the species strongholds, although there has still been significant range loss in parts of these regions. Current distribution in several countries remains largely unknown (e.g. Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Angola, Mozambique and Zambia). Cheetah are known to be extirpated from large areas in Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi. In some parts of southern Africa they occur extensively outside protected areas on commercial ranch land where other large predators (lions and hyenas) have been extirpated (e.g. Botswana and Namibia) (Purchase et al. 2007).

Southern Africa is the cheetah’s regional stronghold, with a “roughly” estimated population of 4,213 adults (RWCP 2016). A large proportion of the estimated population (73.5%) lives outside protected areas, in lands ranched primarily for livestock but also for wild game, and where lions and hyenas have been extirpated.

Overall, only 21% of the estimated cheetah population across Africa inhabits protected areas (IUCN categories I-IV). In addition, approximately 50% live in habitat blocks which are trans-boundary, requiring international cooperation for conservation of the population.

In comparison with other big cats, cheetah occur at relatively low densities (10-30% of typical densities for lions, leopards, tigers and jaguars in prime habitat: Durant, 2007). On the Serengeti plains, cheetah densities range from 0.8-1.0 per 100 km², but seasonally cheetah can congregate at densities up to 40 per 100 km² (Caro 1994). Caro (1994) attributes lower cheetah densities to interspecific competition (especially with larger species such as lions and hyenas that can kill cheetah cubs), but on Namibian farmlands, where lions and hyenas have been eradicated, cheetah still occur at low densities (0.2 per 100 km²) (Marker 2002). Sizes of territories and home ranges can vary greatly (37-3000 km²).

Range Map:
Click here to see the historical distribution of cheetah and here to see current distribution

Physical Characteristics

The cheetah is a large, sleek felid with a light skeletal frame and a slender, long-legged body. They have a small head with high set eyes and a black ‘tear mark’ running from the inner aspect of each eye down to the mouth. Their coat is tan coloured, covered with solid round black spots.

The cheetah is the world’s fastest land mammal, and the most unique and specialized member of the cat family. With astonishing powers of acceleration, a cheetah can go from 0 to 60 miles (96 kilometres) an hour in only three seconds; during a chase, they can (briefly) maintain speeds of up to 100 km/hr. They have a long tail that serves as a rudder when they turn corners at high speed.

Cheetah also have exceptionally keen eyesight, which they use to scan their environment for signs of prey. It is believed that the black tear marks help to keep the reflection of the sun out of the cheetahs’ eyes.

Adults measure 110-150cm in length and weigh between 35 and 60kg. Unlike other cats, cheetah have blunt, semi-retractable claws that serve as a pair of running spikes and provide traction when chasing prey.

Behaviour and Social Structure

Wild cheetah can live to 12 years of age. Females mature at about 24 months, when they may give birth to their first litter, which they raise on their own. Mating occurs throughout the year, the gestation period is 90-95 days and average litter sizes range from 3 to 5 cubs (although up to 8 have been recorded).

Cubs are born with their black spots and a silvery mane that is shed at about 3-4 months of age. During the first two months of their life the cheetah mother leaves her cubs behind in a lair when she goes out to hunt. Cheetah cubs are often killed by larger predators such as lions, spotted hyenas and leopards, and cub mortality can be as high as 95%. The cheetah mothers are not able to defend their cubs against these larger predators.

Cheetah cubs stay with their mother for one and a half to two years, during which time they learn from their mother and practice hunting techniques with playful games. Once the mother leaves the cubs, they often stay together in sibling groups for several months before the males and females go their separate ways.

Cheetah males are often social (live in coalitions) and hold small territories while cheetah females are solitary and have large home ranges. The males scent-mark their territory and defend it against intruders, whereas females tolerate other cheetah in their home range that often overlaps with home ranges of other cheetah. Females can range across several male territories annually, and are highly promiscuous, which can result in females giving birth to a litter with cubs from different fathers. Genetic analysis by Gottelli et al. (2007) showed that 43% of cheetah litters had mixed paternity. The cheetah’s social system with solitary females and social males is unique among cats.

Habitat and Diet

Cheetah are habitat generalists and can be found in many different habitats including open plains, dry forest, woodland, savannah, semi-desert and thick bush. There are reports of cheetah at altitudes of 4,000 m on Mt Kenya (Young and Evans 1993), and in the central Sahara, cheetah occur in high mountain habitat. Habitat preference is often determined by prey availability and a lack of other large predators. Particularly in East and Southern Africa, cheetah tend to avoid areas with high prey densities, probably to avoid large predators like lions and hyenas that can be found in these areas.

Cheetah are diurnal, and hunt in the day time. Adult cheetah mostly kill medium sized antelopes (15-30 kg) but small animals like birds and hares are also an important part of the diet. Cheetah, unlike most other African predators, rarely scavenge and do not remain long with their kills, many of which are stolen by other carnivores. Cheetah need only drink once every three to four days.

Threats and Conservation Action

The major threat to cheetah is loss of habitat and isolation of existing habitat patches. Because cheetah 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 cheetah (Durant 2007).

A depleted wild ungulate prey base is of serious concern in northern Africa (Berzins and Belbachir 2006) but is also considered a significant threat in parts of eastern Africa and southern Africa, particularly where bushmeat poaching is rampant.

Conflict with farmers and ranchers is another serious threat to cheetah in southern Africa (Purchase et al. 2007). Cheetah are often killed or persecuted because they are a perceived threat to livestock, despite the fact that they cause relatively little damage. Cheetah are also vulnerable to being caught in snares set for other species, and disease (especially anthrax) can be a problem (Lindeque et al. 1998).

Another threat to the cheetah is interspecific competition with other large predators, especially lions. On the open, short-grass plains of the Serengeti, juvenile mortality can be as high as 95%, largely due to predation by lions (Laurenson 1994). However, mortality rates are lower in more closed habitats.

The RWCP’s Eastern African cheetah conservation strategy identified four sets of constraints to mitigating these threats across a large spatial scale. Political constraints include lack of land use planning, insecurity and political instability in some ecologically important areas, and lack of political will to foster cheetah conservation. Economic constraints include lack of financial resources to support conservation, and lack of incentives for local people to conserve wildlife. Social constraints include negative conceptions of cheetah, lack of capacity to achieve conservation, lack of environmental awareness, rising human populations, and social changes leading to subdivision of land and subsequent habitat fragmentation. These potentially mutable human constraints contrast with several biological constraints which are characteristic of cheetah and cannot be changed, including wide-ranging behavior, negative interactions with other large carnivores, and potential susceptibility to disease.

Solutions

As with African wild dogs, some of the most impactful interventions for cheetah conservation are habitat preservation, range expansion and creating of areas of connectivity between isolated habitat fragments.

Working to reduce the illegal bushmeat trade is also key to reducing cheetah deaths from wire snares, and to minimise the depletion of the cheetah’s natural prey base. In addition, community engagement and education is important to address negative misperceptions and to help encourage tolerance though reducing livestock losses and providing benefits. Promotion of livestock management regimes which minimize conflict with cheetah are an important conservation measure, including more intensive livestock herd protection and using guard dogs.

The RWCP works with a wide range of conservation programs, field projects and government wildlife authorities to promote and support interventions and activities that directly and effectively address these threats.

Should you wish to support any such efforts, please contact any one of us, and we will direct you to suitable programs or organisations.

With Thanks to…

The Range Wide Conservation Program is a joint initiative of the Zoological Society of London and the Wildlife Conservation Society, endorsed by the IUCN Cat and Canid Specialist Groups. The program’s core operating costs are funded by the Howard G Buffet Foundation. Many other organisations have supported or funded various aspects of the program.