The million-year-old fossilised remains of a cheetah specimen have been found near Bulawayo (Zimbabwe). Once, though no longer , the cheetah also ranged across Asia and India. Its Hindu name chita, meaning spotted, has, however, endured. Today wild cheetah can only be found in Africa and Iran, usually near springbok or Thomson’s gazelle grazing on open grassland. In game reserves, midday – when scavenging hyaena and snappy tourists are at siesta – is prime action time.
The cheetah, having stalked to within 50 or 60m, steps up to a long-legged loping 30-40mph cruise in full view of and parallel with the now stampeding herd. A target is selected from the outskirts of the group. In 2-3 seconds the lithe, streamlined torso explodes to about 65mph, large but narrow open-clawed paws spiking the ground as long, muscular legs rapidly close the gap in strides of almost eight metres. A foreleg stretch, a dewclaw hook and the tripped victim cartwheels in a dust cloud. Death is by strangulation. Exhausted, the predator gasps heavily for oxygen before regaining enough strength to drag the corpse under cover. The fastest mammalian sprinter on earth sits down to dinner, using specially adapted carnassial (cheek) teeth to shear through skin and flesh.
Top of the fast food menu, at about 50mph, are springbok, impala, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles. Tasty warthog piglets may be served a little more slowly but vigilant mother hogs are a formidable deterrent. A full-grown wildebeest, pounding along at 40mph, could be tabled by a group of male cheetah hunting together, whilst panicking young get picked off by a lone female bent on feeding her cubs.
An aberrant form, the King cheetah (A. rex), has occasionally been spotted in Zimbabwe. It’s bigger and the spots on the upper body have coalesced into bars giving it a darker appearance. This is the result of a recessive gene. Some other minor genetic diversities have been noted amongst cheetah but their survival has not apparently been endangered by these.
Height: 0.8m at shoulder
Length: about 2m, including 60cm tail
Gestation: 3 months, 2-4 young with low survival rate.
Lifespan: about 10 years.
Particular characteristics: sandy brown fur profusely dotted with small black spots, small head, small rounded ears with “tear” stripe running from eye to cheek, long tail, ringed at the tip.