The cheetah is the fastest land mammal on planet earth. The cheetah is characterized by a slender body, deep chest, spotted coat, a small rounded head, black tear-like streaks on the face, long thin legs and a long spotted tail.
The cheetah reaches nearly 70 to 90 cm at the shoulder, and weighs 20–75 kg. Though they look similar to leopards, they are taller than the latter. Their slender bodies ensure that they are built for speed.
Cheetahs are the only big cats that don’t roar. They are also poor tree climbers since their craws don’t retract like those of leopards. They are mainly found in the plains of Sub Saharan Africa.
Cheetahs mainly prey on Thomson’s gazelle, impalas, hares and other lightweight herbivores. Cheetahs are known to be active during the day and hunting is their main activity. They take the advantage of camouflage to stalk on their prey. Before bursting on their prey they close the distance to about 100m. If a cheetah begins the chase before the prey spots them, they will have a success rate of upto 80%.
A cheetah can accelerate from a speed of zero to 70 miles an hour in three seconds while in pursuit of a prey. Cheetahs kill their prey with the killer bite on the throat leading to suffocation and death is eminent. Once they make a kill, they gain their breath and feed as fast as possible to avoid losing their kill to other predator like hyenas or lions.
Cheetahs breed throughout the year. Gestation is nearly three months long, resulting in a litter of typically one to six cubs. Weaning occurs at six months. Siblings tend to stay together for some time. Cheetah cubs face higher mortality. Often cheetahs and their cubs are killed by lions, hyenas and leopards. Cheetahs inhabit a variety of habitats – dry forests, scrub forests and savannahs.
Male cheetahs are known to form coalitions and live together unlike the female who live solitary unless they are breeding or have cubs. Male cheetahs live in territories unlike female cheetahs do not establish territories. Instead, they live in unguarded areas, known as home ranges. Though home ranges often overlap, there is hardly any interaction between the females. A territory can range from 35 to 45 km2. They mark their territories by spraying urine on the boundaries of their territories. The cheetah is an alert animal; individuals often inspect their vicinity at observation points such as elevations or termite hills. A cheetah can live between 10 to 12 years in its natural habitat.
Cheetahs have now been classified as endangered species thanks to their reduced population in the wild. It is estimated that about 7000 cheetahs roam the wild. This has greatly been caused by poaching and human wildlife conflicts due to encroachment.