Cheetah Rock

Banner for cheetah rock at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Be captivated by the beauty and magnificence of the fastest land animal on earth when you visit Cheetah Rock.

Enter the fantastic 4,000m² £1million exhibit along the main pedestrian path, which follows across the road from Lions of Serengeti and their African Village. Once you’ve crossed the road via the Cheetah Crossing a standing stone bearing the Cheetah Rock logo will welcome you in.

As you move along the path view our Zoo ‘athletes’ from an African style hut, where floor to ceiling glass are the only thing separating you from the animals.

A cheetah at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Behind the scenes

Cheetahs have been a long-standing success story at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, where a staggering 130 cubs have been born and reared in the last 40 years. To build on this and restart our breeding programme the exhibit will also include an off-show breeding area.

Discovery

Learn about cheetahs and ZSL’s involvement with these amazing animals via the Cheetah Conservation Programme in Tanzania and curious cheetah facts that are displayed in the viewing area. If you’ve ever wondered what field conservation work is like, we offer you the opportunity to carry out Cheetah ID. Using reference photographs and a modified version of the actual software used in the field by our cheetah conservation team you will be able to ID individual cheetahs from tourist photographs send in and field sightings.

On leaving the African style hut there will be information boards explaining how researchers use ‘signs of life’ to locate animals, ID them and how often they count them. In the ‘discovery’ area you can also fast track your own knowledge of a cheetah by testing your acceleration speed on the Cheetah Sprint running strip. You can then compare your running speed against the speed of a cheetah against the same distance - and discover if you stood a chance if you were prey! This also includes a display safari Land Rover, depicting real life cheetah conservation activities in the African savannah.

Videos

Cheetah cub looking at birthday cake at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo's Cheetah Rock

The cheetah cubs make a right mess at their first birthday party

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Cheetahs can reach speeds of up to 100km per hour (70mph) and are the world's fastest land mammal. However, they can only run at their prey for relatively short distances, so prefer to creep up on and then spring into action.

A cheetah at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Scientific name: Acinonyx jubatus
Animal type: Carnivorous mammal
Length of body: 1.1 to 1.5 metres
Length of tail: 60 to 80 cm long
Weight: 21 – 72kg
Location: Africa, 
Habitat: Adapted to savannah or open grassland but also dense woodlands
Lifespan: Up to 17 years

  • Name derives from a Hindi word – Chita – which means ‘the spotted one’
  • Like the different features on every human face, different spot patterns in the Cheetah’s coat makes each one unique
  • The colour of their fur helps them to blend into tall grass, making them difficult to locate in the wild
  • The Cheetah doesn’t not roar like other big cats, lions and tigers. Instead it gently purrs and even makes sounds similar to chirping to communicate to others
  • There are a total of 36 different species
  • The Cheetah is the world’s fastest land mammal. With acceleration that would leave most cars in the dust, a cheetah can go from 0 to 60 mph (96 km/h) in only three seconds
  • Humans trained cheetahs as hunting animals as long ago as 3000 BC
  • In the wild Cheetahs may only need to drink once every three to four days because they get fluid from their food
  • Cheetahs are diurnal creatures – which means they live by the day

Physical Features

  • Powerful back legs and large muscles gives the Cheetah amazing running power
  • Long tail used for balance and to help steering when making fast turns. Also helps cubs to follow their mother through high grass
  • Flexible spine allows legs to reach far long strides
  • Dotted markings on its fur helps it to camouflage with its surroundings when hunting prey
  • Its feet are clawed which grip the floor as they sprint
  • Has a long tear drop shaped black line from the inside of the eye to the mouth. This possibly helps to eliminate glare during daytime hunting 

Cubs

  • Cheetah cubs are born with long, grey fur. This helps them to camouflage with their surroundings, as well as resembling the markings of the formidable honey badger, which may help to deter predators.
  • A litter of cubs is usually between two and five
  • The mother raises their young in isolation from other adult cheetahs, going hunting in the morning and returning to the lair after patrolling her range for predators and food
  • The mother moves her litter to a new lair every four days. She inspects a new bush or other hidden area only within a couple of metres from the last lair. These frequent moves prevent the litter from a build up of smell making it harder for hyenas or other predators to find them
  • At this stage the cubs still haven’t learnt to walk, so they are picked up one at a time by the scruff of their necks, and carried to their new lair by their mother 
  • Stages of raising cubs*
  • Birth to 6 months – the mother suckles the cubs. In this time the cub will learn to crawl and stand, eventually walking after 3 to 4 weeks
  • 6 to 12 months – the mother teaches the cubs to hunt, but still provides feed for her fast growing young
  • 12 months – the cubs are becoming effective hunters by now, and the mother will join them in hunting
  • 15 months – the cubs leave their mother to fend for themselves in the wild. Often boys in the litter will stay together, hunting and travelling in groups

Hunting

  • Cheetahs are carnivorous so they will hunt and kill other mammals to eat. Animals they prey upon include gazelles, impalas, antelope and birds
  • Mothers will help younger cubs to hunt their prey, by catching a victim safely by the head, instead of the usual lethal grip on the throat. She releases the victim in close proximity of the cubs, encouraging them to chase after it and attack. Usually the mother will need to chase and trip the victim herself giving the young a chance to strike
  • Cheetahs hunt for food in the open and attack quickly with speed, instead of stalking their prey like lions and tigers
  • Cheetahs are active during the day, hunting and eating in the daylight when other predators are resting in the sun. This limits the competition for food from other predators 

Male vs Female

  • Female Cheetahs largely live their life in solitary and raise their cubs in isolation. Male cheetahs will form ‘tribes’ together with other males, sometimes even with their own brothers from the same litter, and migrate in these herds
  • Adult females only associate with adult males during ‘oestrus’. This is the times when mating occurs, and the only time when males and females interact socially
  • During this time male and female Cheetahs will groom each other by licking each other’s faces. This is usually initiated by females, and is possibly a form of inspection to help them identify another cheetah
  • Only male cheetahs are territorial and ‘mark’ in the wild. This is when they urinate at the bottom of a tree or another area, and then scrape that area with their hind legs to claim a specific area as their territory 

Origins

  • The cheetah’s long association with humans dates as far back as 3000BC to the Sumerians, the earliest known civilisation in the world, from Mesopotamia
  • Cheetahs were known to be hunting pets of Mongol rulers. The Mogul Emperor, Akbar the Great, who ruled Hindustan from 1556 to 1605, trained 1000 Cheetahs for hunting
  • Ancient Egyptians believed Cheetahs were sacred. Cheetah artefacts were discovered in Tutankhamen’s tomb buried in 1400 BC
  • Fossil records of a sub species of Cheetahs known as the Giant Cheetah date back as long ago as 1 – 2 million years
  • Cheetahs probably grew in population in Africa some 18 to 20 million years ago when grasslands were spreading and when population of gazelles, animals Cheetahs prey for food, also increased

Conservation work

IUCN Conservation status: Vulnerable

Today cheetahs are extinct in more than 20 countries and between 9,000 to 12,000 animals remain, in small-pocketed populations in 24 - 26 countries in Africa and about 200 in Iran.

Cheetah conservation has been a major focus for ZSL since 1991. In Tanzania we have been carrying out the longest running in depth study of a wild cheetah population.

Since 1974 the Serengeti Cheetah Project has been keeping track of individual cheetahs living on the plains in the southern part of the Serengeti National Park.

Where they live

Africa and Iran

Habitat

Sparse sub-desert, steppe (a treeless plain), medium and long-grass plains
What they eat

Cheetahs prey on a variety of species from hares to small antelope, and the young of larger antelope.

An adult cheetah yawning, taken during the Institute of Zoology's ongoing Cheetah Conservation Program.

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Cheetah conservation in Tanzania has been a major focus for ZSL since 1991. With the support of the Tanzanian authorities, and more recently in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), we have been carrying out the longest- running in depth study of a wild cheetah population.

A Cheetah in the Serangeti in Tanzania, taken on conservation Programme's ongoing field work with Cheetahs.

Building on our relationship with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) and Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) we are now establishing a scheme for monitoring cheetah numbers across the country. Furthermore, as existing protected areas alone cannot ensure a long-term future for these beautiful cats, we are investigating ways to help cheetahs and humans to co-exist in the larger landscape.

Cheetah Census

Since 1974 the Serengeti Cheetah Project has been keeping track of individual cheetahs living on the plains in the southern part of the Serengeti National Park. This population numbers around 50 adult females and 20 adult males at any one time, and individuals can be easily identified by their distinctive spot patterns. Over the years this study has told us a great deal about wild cheetahs - their ecology, ranging patterns, social behaviour and hunting strategies.

Genetic management

With the loss of their habitat, cheetah populations are increasingly becoming fragmented and isolated. As populations become small, they become vulnerable to genetic problems such as inbreeding. In order to understand these processes, we have to understand their breeding system. In the Serengeti we know the mothers (and often grandmothers and great grandmothers) of most of the cheetahs, but we know very little about their fathers. New 
techniques for extracting DNA from faeces are now being used by ZSL's genetics labs to identify the fathers in the population. This enables us to estimate the likelihood of inbreeding and losses in genetic diversity in isolated populations and hence plan long-term genetic management of fragmented populations of cheetah.

The Tanzania Cheetah Watch

As well as the scientific work, we are using 'Cheetah Watch' leaflets to persuade tourists in Tanzania to send us their photos of cheetahs, which can be matched with spot pattern records and used to monitor cheetah population size across Tanzania.

For further information please download the full: Tanzania cheetah conservation programme information sheet (652 KB)

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Cheetah rock

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