Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

The world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah, is a unique and the most specialized member of the cat family and can reach speeds of 70 mph. Acceleration from 0 to 84 km/hr in just 3 seconds, with a full speed of 110 km/hr, means that the cheetah can out-perform a sports car! Unlike other cats, the cheetah has a leaner body, longer legs, and has been referred to as the greyhound of the cats.

The scientific name for cheetah is Acinonyx jubatus. The genus name, Acinonyx, is interpreted as ‘non-moving claws’, referring to the semi-retractable claws. The species name, jubatus, means “maned”, referring to the mantle on a young cheetah’s back.It is not an aggressive animal, using flight versus fight. With its weak jaws and small teeth, the price it paid for speed, it cannot fight larger predators to protect its kill or young.


  • Height: 2.5-3 feet at shoulder
  • Length: 3.5 to 4.5 long, not including their 30 inch tails
  • Weight: 110 to 143 lbs (50-65 kg)


  • 10 to 12 years in the wild
  • Up to 17 years in captivity


  • Mating Season: Female cheetahs are polyoestrous, which means there is no regular breeding season. If not bred, females come into heat (oestrus) several times a year. Oestrus means they are ready to breed. If cubs are lost to predators, females soon come into oestrus again.
  • Gestation: 90-95 days
  • Litter Size: average of 2-4 cubs
  • Cub Rearing: Cubs are smoky in color with long, woolly hair – called a mantle – running down their backs. This mantle is thought to camouflage cubs in grass, concealing them from predators. Mothers move cubs to new hiding places every few days. At 5-6 weeks, cubs follow the mother and begin eating from their kills.


Cheetahs live mainly in grassland savannahs. They prefer habitat that includes some cover in the form of bushes, medium-length grass, trees and small hills. Cheetahs need abundant prey in their habitat to survive and reproduce. In Namibia their habitat is densely bushed due to bush encroachment.

Cheetahs sometimes live in a wide variety of habitats. They occasionally use semi-desert, dense woodland or mountainous terrain. Older animals unable to defend territories and young cheetahs just starting to live on their own use these marginal habitats.


Cheetahs eat mainly gazelles, wildebeest calves, impalas and smaller hoofed animals, but also hunt small mammals and birds.


Found mostly in open and partially open savannah, cheetahs rely on tall grasses for camouflage when hunting. They are diurnal (more active in the day) animals and hunt mostly during the late morning or early evening. Only half of the chases, which last from 20-60 seconds, are successful.

Cheetahs knock their prey to the ground and kill with a suffocating bite to the neck. They must eat quickly before they lose the kills to other bigger or more aggressive carnivores. Unlike most other cats, the cheetah usually hunts during daylight, preferring early morning or early evening.

Cheetahs are also typically solitary animals. While males sometimes live with a small group of brothers from the same litter, females generally raise cubs by themselves for about a year.


In 1900, there were over 100,000 cheetahs across their historic range. Today, an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 cheetahs remain in the wild in Africa. In Iran, there are around 200 cheetahs living in small isolated populations.


The cheetah’s future is uncertain due to a variety of threats. The biggest is habitat loss due to human encroachment. In addition, they often deal with declines in prey and conflicts with humans. There is also high cub mortality due to predation by carnivores like lions and hyenas that are in competition with the cheetah, as well as genetic inbreeding which leads to abnormalities.

Interesting Facts

  • A sprinting cheetah can reach 45 miles per hour within 2.5 seconds. Top speed—up to 70 miles per hour—can only be briefly sustained.
  • In the 16th century, emperors and other royalty hunted gazelles with trained cheetahs.
  • Traditional African healers and witch doctors used cheetah foot bones in spiritualistic rituals to symbolize fleet-footedness and speed.
  • Namibia has the world’s largest cheetah population. Approximately 3,000 cheetahs share the land with humans, livestock and wildlife.
  • Cheetahs are markedly different in both anatomy and behaviour from the other 36 species of cats.
  • They are the only species in their genus.
  • Until the 1900’s they were often thought to be related to dogs rather than cats.
  • Cheetahs are the only big cats that cannot roar, but they can purr.
  • They chirp, too. – A high-pitched bird-like chirp is used by a mother calling her cubs, cheetahs greeting each other and during courtship. These calls can be heard over a long distance. The intensity of the chirp increases with excitement.

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~Laurence Lee