Known as the world's fastest land mammal, the cheetah is also one of Africa's most threatened carnivores. Apart from the classic anthropogenic threats that most animals face such as habitat destruction, poaching and human-animal conflict, the cheetah is also under ecological pressure. There is indeed a serious risk of extinction of the species due to a genetic bottleneck because of a low genetic diversity pool. The cheetah is also particularly sensitive to interspecific competition. Indeed, the cheetah is often the victim of kleptoparasitism committed by other large African predators who also do not hesitate to attack cubs and even adults.
The cheetah was formerly widespread in all Africa except for the rainforests of the Congo Basin. It was also widespread throughout the Middle East as far as India. The Asian cheetah has almost disappeared from the continent except for a few specimens which survive with difficulty in Iran. The last cheetahs in India, where it was once widespread, were killed by a Maharajah in the mid-twentieth century. In Africa, the Sahara cheetah, which is a small, light-coloured subspecies, has difficulty surviving in Niger, northern Mali and southern Algeria. The cheetah is also in danger of extinction in West African countries. It is more widespread in eastern and southern Africa, particularly in the large national parks where it can enjoy greater protection. However, under the pressure of lions and spotted hyenas which populate the protected areas, it can leave the protected areas to escape from the competition and get closer to the inhabited areas like the wild dog. However, the cheetah does not have the capacity to live close to humans like the leopard which is much more adaptable.
Length (without the tail): 108-152 cm
Shoulder height: 73-96 cm
Poids: F=21-51 kg ; M=28,5-64 kg
The Sahara cheetahs is smaller with weight varying between 20 to 45 kg.
Habitat: The cheetah inhabits a wide variety of open environments such as semi-deserts like the Kalahari, short-grass savannahs like the southern Serengeti but also ventures into real deserts like the Sahara and the Namib following the rare watercourses. Contrary to the image conveyed in animal documentaries, the cheetah also frequents the bushy and woodland savannahs where the extra vegetation allows it to hide its prey and cubs from other predators. The cheetah thrives particularly in mosaics alternating open woodland and grassland. It avoids rainforests and areas of dense vegetation.
Food: The cheetah's speed, light build and relatively weak jaws make it a predator of small to medium sized fleet ungulates such as gazelles and antelopes weighing less than 80 kg. Among its main prey species are all the African gazelles such as the Thompson's gazelle, the gazelles affiliated to the Grant's gazelle group, the Soemmering gazelle, the Dorcas gazelle, the Dama gazelle, to mention only but a few. Among the antelopes, the cheetah mostly preys on springboks, impalas, reduncas, kobs, pukus, lechwes and lesser kudu. It also hunts the young and sub-adults of larger species such as wildebeest, topi, hartebeest, gemsbok, kudu, waterbucks, roan antelopes. Zebra foals and small warthogs are also favorite prey. However, it is exceptional for a lone cheetah to attack adults of these species that could injure it, although there is at least one case of a successful cheetah attack on an adult roan antelope and an adult female greater kudu.
Male cheetah coalitions of two to five members are capable of attacking adult zebras and large antelopes such as wildebeest, hartebeest, topi, greater kudu, cob and even sub-adult gemsbok as demonstrated by Gus Mills in his study of Kalahari cheetahs. In the Masai Mara, a coalition of five cheetahs called "the musketeers" routinely kill large prey such as hartebeest, wildebeest and adult zebra. In South Africa, cheetahs regularly prey on male nyalas weighing over 100 kg. Unusual prey also includes ostriches, even adults, and young giraffes.
The cheetah also regularly hunts much smaller prey such as lagomorphs, small antelopes such as diks diks, sunis, steenboks, duikers, oribis and other grysboks.
When hunting, like other felids, the cheetah crawls as close as possible to its prey before launching a lightning sprint to catch it at a speed that can go up to 110 km/h but which on average is more around 80 km/h and which it can sustain for 300 m before having to stop to avoid brain damage. When it gets close to its prey, it knocks it off balance with a blow from its front paws. Unlike lions and leopards, which have retractable claws that allow them to grab their prey and put it on the ground, the cheetah's claws are semi-retractable and act like spikes to hold it down when it is running and give it momentum. It cannot catch its prey and throw it to the ground like other big cats and uses the hooked dewclaws of its front paws to trip its victims. The dewclaw is struck either on the prey's hind legs or on its rump, which in both cases has the effect of tripping it up. Once on the ground, the cheetah grabs the throat of its victim between its jaws to suffocate it in the classic felid manner. When the victim weighs more than 80 kg, the cheetah is not always able to trip it and then grabs its rump with its two front legs in an attempt to unbalance it.
When cheetahs hunt in groups, they use the same tactics .Tim Caro's studies in the Serengeti have shown that cheetahs maintain individualised behaviour and show little coordination when hunting in groups. In general, the first cheetah to reach the prey will try to put it down while waiting for its companions to join. They will cling to the prey in a disorderly fashion while biting any part of the prey's body until one of the cheetahs manages to reach the victim's throat for a stranglehold. Hunting in a group does not improve hunting success so much as it allows cheetah to hunt larger prey and thus increase food intake. The cheetah remains the second most efficient predator in Africa behind the wild dog.
Capturing prey is not the hardest part for cheetahs, keeping it is actually the real challenge. In open areas such as the Serengeti, other large predators such as lions, spotted hyenas and leopards spot clouds of smoke caused by the stampeding prey from afar and follow the flight of vultures that indicate the location of prey killed by cheetahs. Cheetahs offer little resistance to other predators. Lions, hyenas, wild dogs and leopards have no difficulty in dispossessing a cheetah of its prey. Even a coalition of five male cheetahs will tend to retreat from a lone hyena or leopard and leave them steal their prey rather than fight them. Sometimes one or two members of a coalition will hold the hyena at bay while the others feast on the prey, but they will eventually desert the scene for fear that the hyena will call reinforcements. Similarly, there are rare cases where coalitions of five cheetahs have managed to put a leopard to flight. The cheetah, whether alone or in a group, generally manages to keep jackals and vultures at bay, but if the vultures are too numerous, they may cause the cheetah to desert the area for fear that they will attract more powerful predators. The cheetah rarely scavenges.
Behaviour and social structure: The social structure of the cheetah is atypical. More social than the leopard, it remains less social than the lion. Females are solitary and nomadic while males are territorial and sometimes form coalitions. Females roam over large home ranges that can be several hundred square kilometers when prey is scarce, as in the Kalahari. Males have smaller home ranges. In areas rich in game, they reach an area of several dozens of km2 (30 to 50 km2). Males establish territories when there is a sufficient density of female cheetahs in a given locality to boost their mating opportunities. The density of females depends directly on the high concentration of prey. Cheetah females follow the movements of prey. When prey is scarce, the female cheetah population will be much more scattered. There will then be little interest for the males to establish territories and they will become nomadic like the females. Male cheetahs, especially if they are solitary, can also become nomadic when they are not strong enough to keep a territory in the face of competition from other male cheetahs. This is why male cheetahs form coalitions as their combined strength will enable them to better defend and hold on to a territory against opposing males and increase the mating opportunities for each male in the coalition. Territories are marked by urine and feces. Being in a coalition allows male cheetahs to capture larger prey and increase their respective food intake. The more males in the coalition, the more powerful it will be. These coalitions are often formed by brothers from a same litter but can also include male cheetahs who met during their wanderings after their adolescence. Competition between male cheetahs for access to females or in the defence of territories is quite intense and gives rise to violent fights that can result in death. Females are more tolerant of each other but keep their distance especially when they have cubs. The cheetah's vocal repertoire is unusual among felids. They do not roar but growl when threatened. The cubs chirp like birds, the adults purr and emit a kind of chirping sound when they call their mates.
Breeding behavior: Cheetahs breed all year round. Mating is quite violent and traumatic for female cheetahs. Indeed, when faced with males, the latter after having tested her receptivity by sniffing her genitals, harass her and prevent her to leave until she gives in to their advances. This is especially true if the males are in a coalition. The female defends herself and charges the male or males courting her. In male coalitions, one of the males will be dominant over the others and will monopolize mating opportunities without having exclusivity. The non-dominant males in a coalition will however have more mating opportunities than a solitary nomadic male cheetah. The female gives birth to litters of one to six cubs after a gestation period of 90 to 98 days. But many die within the first few weeks due to predators. The female takes refuge in the vegetation to give birth. The young are born blind. The female changes their hiding place regularly to avoid attracting predators like hyenas. After five weeks, the cubs are led to prey killed by the mother. After six months, the mother brings them live prey such as gazelle fawns or hares to teach them how to hunt and how to exercise the fatal bite. The young are able to hunt after one year. After reaching maturity and leaving their mother, young male and female cheetahs stay together for some time but the young female will be the first to become independent. The young males stay together and will form a lifelong coalition.
Cheetahs are daytime predators which allows them to escape the attention of their competitors such as lions, leopards and hyenas which are nocturnal predators. However, they rest during the warmer hours of the day. They are rarely active at night when they take refuge in the vegetation
Predators: Lions, leopards, spotted hyenas and packs of wild dogs are all dominant over cheetahs and will steal their kills whenever they can and are all capable of killing an adult cheetah, not to mention the Nile crocodile. If the cheetah's superior speed makes it safe from predators, a lion or leopard can always surprise an inattentive cheetah. The leopard regards the cheetah as prey and will mount the carcass in a tree as if it was an antelope. A lone cheetah will be no match for a leopard and even cheetah coalitions usually avoid confrontation. The lion also kills adult cheetahs and cubs on occasion but more for the purpose of eliminating a competitor. Spotted, brown and striped hyenas regard the cheetah as a food provider and often steal its kills or kill its cubs. It is rare for a hyena to try to kill a cheetah even if it is capable of doing so, unless the cheetah is unwilling to give up its prey. African wild dogs as a pack may also steal their prey from cheetahs even if the cheetah is more powerful than a single dog. Like hyenas, a pack of African wild dogs can potentially kill a cheetah if it poses a threat to the cubs. Nile crocodiles are a danger at waterholes. A video shot in the Kruger shows a Nile crocodile killing a cheetah as it comes to drink. In the Serengeti, a cheetah that fell into a river while chasing a reedbuck was immediately attacked by a crocodile. The scene was filmed and also posted on Youtube. Rock pythons are also a potential danger although no attacks have been recorded. Cheetahs also give in to baboons, which can steal their hunt. In addition to the above predators, young cheetahs are also victims of jackals, raptors and can also be trampled by large herbivores. Yet the mother cheetah shows incredible beavery in defense of its cub. It will not hesitate to confront and harass a lion, leopard or hyena by slapping them with her paws before making a hasty retreat before they can retaliate thanks to her superior speed in the hope that this will distract them from the cubs buying them time to run away. The cheetah otherwise only dominates jackals, vultures and smaller felids.
Best places to see it: In my experience, the large national parks in East Africa, particularly the Serengeti and Masai Mara, offer the best opportunities. Southern African parks such as the Kalahari Trasnfrontier Park and Moremi in Botswana, Etosha in Namibia, the Kruger and Phinda in South Africa are also good places to see cheetahs but perhaps at a lower frequency. Even in East Africa, cheetah sightings are becoming increasingly scarce. In parks like Amboselli or Nairobi in Kenya where it used to be common, it is becoming very rare to see them. This is a personal opinion, but in my last few trips to the bush in East Africa, cheetah sightings have become harde to come by than leopard sightings except in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. I was able to see a cheetah in Ngorongoro in 2002, from 2015 to 2017 I never saw one again.