Cheetah fast facts

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 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 around 7100 animals remain, in small-pocketed populations in Africa and about 50 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.

Cheetah at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Book Tickets

Book your tickets now for a wild day out!