Cheetahs are widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa but predominantly in drier regions of southern and eastern Africa. They are very sparse in northern and western Africa; however a tiny population remains in northern Iran.
Cheetahs are most frequently observed on open grasslands, but inhabit a wide variety of arid environments from open and woodland savanna, dense vegetation and forest, desert and semi-desert, to mountainous terrain.
This medium-sized feline has a long, slim narrow torso, a small head with large, high-set eyes, large nostrils and small, rounded ears. They weigh anywhere between 86-143 lb, with males slightly larger and heavier than females. The upper body varies from tan/buff, yellow/gold, to grayish white with dark, round or oval spots. Cheetahs have distinctive, dark tear marks that run from the inside corner of their eyes down the mouth as protection from sun glare. Adaptations that enable the cheetah to run at 65 mph include long, slim legs; an extremely flexible spine; large powerful heart and arteries; and enlarged liver, lungs and adrenals. They have semi-retractable claws which provide cleat-like traction during high speed maneuvers.
In the wild: approximately14 years
In zoos: up to 21 years
In the wild: Prey species include medium sized antelope, gazelles, puku, impalas and hares.
At the zoo: Mixed meat supplemented with vitamins/minerals. They are also occasionally offered a whole rabbit.
Females reach sexual maturity between 24 and 36 months; males between 12 and 36 months. Cubs become independent at 18 months. Females mate with available males for one to seven days then resume their solitary lifestyle. Gestation lasts between 90 to 98 days. Litter size averages four cubs, which is larger than most other felids.
A typical litter size is between four and five cubs with newborns weighing a mere 9-15 ounces (0.25-0.4 kg). Cubs are left alone and subject to predation while females hunt, resulting in a very high cub mortality rate. At six weeks of age, cubs follow their mother and begin to eat meat. Females change dens hidden in tall grass, undergrowth or rock clumps every few days. Young cubs spend their first year learning hunting techniques from their mother. Cubs become independent at 18 months. Male cheetahs live alone or in small groups, often with their littermates.
Cheetahs are found in mostly open savanna and rely on tall grasses for camouflage when hunting. Diurnal lives help cheetahs avoid competition with larger, nocturnal predators, such as lions, hyenas and leopards. Cheetahs are the fastest land mammal clocking speeds up to 65 mph (102 kph). Although cheetahs are fast, they don’t have the same endurance as their antelope prey, so they have to be stealthy hunters, stalking their prey as close as possible (usually within 50 yards (45m)) before charging with phenomenal acceleration. After a successful hunt, they gorge rapidly, up to 30 pounds (14 kg) at one sitting, and rarely return for a second helping. Cheetahs may go four days without water, relying on the blood of their prey and will eat liquids from melons for moisture.
Cheetahs are also solitary animals. At sexual maturity, young females leave the group to establish territories, to mate and raise young, and to live solitary lives except when they have cubs. Males may also live solitary lives, however many live permanently in groups of two or three called coalitions. Coalitions usually consist of littermates, but may include non-related males.
Major predators are lions and hyenas, also leopards and humans. Young cubs are especially vulnerable to predation, but lions also kill adults.
Cheetahs fulfill a role as a diurnal, medium-size predator in competition for antelope prey species with larger, nocturnal predators: lions, leopards and hyenas. They are an important predator in the food chain on the African savanna. If wild prey is scarce, cheetahs may prey on domestic livestock.
Economic Importance to Humans
Positive: For thousands of years, cheetahs were prized as hunters and pets, as well as for their pelts. Limited trophy hunting on private land in southern Africa promotes acceptance of cheetahs as a profit motive. Currently, cheetahs are important for ecotourism especially in eastern and southern Africa
Negative: While cheetahs cause only three percent of livestock deaths, they receive much more of the blame. Farmers kill cheetahs as vermin; however, improved livestock practices, such as use of guard dogs have reduced both loss of domestic animals and cheetah killing.
Cheetahs are classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. However, two subspecies which occur in Namibia and Iran are classified as Critically Endangered. The population estimate for sub-Saharan Africa is 9,000-12,000. The two largest populations in sub-Saharan Africa occur in East and South Africa. Most populations continue to decline. The largest wild population of cheetahs is found in Namibia. In the 1980s their numbers were reduced by half to less than 2,500. Lack of genetic variation, reproduction abnormalities, high infant mortality, and a great susceptibility to disease place the species at a further risk of extinction.
Cheetahs are protected by law and within reserves; however, in competition with lions and hyenas, cheetahs are less successful. The majority of cheetahs live in small, isolated groups outside of protected areas and are often in conflict with humans and livestock. Cheetah Conservation Fund works internationally for cheetah survival through research, conservation education, and community outreach to reduce cheetah-livestock conflict.
The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) oversees a Species Survival Plan for cheetahs, a conservation breeding program through which accredited zoos work together to manage the genetic health and growth of the population. Cheetahs are also managed at a global level through an International Studbook, which tracks pedigrees for population viability.
How You Can Help!
You can help right now, right where you are! Working to save one of Africa’s most endangered big cats has to be a collaborative effort and it’s not something that one person or one organization can do by themselves. You can help cheetahs in many ways, including donating to a reputable conservation organization such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund through the Woodland Park Zoo field conservation department; you can volunteer or intern with a cheetah conservation program, or share the word about cheetah conservation.
“We’ve lost over 90 percent of the world’s population of wild cheetahs in the last 100 years, and if we don’t act today, we could lose the cheetah forever.” –Dr. Laurie Marker, CCF
Location at the Zoo
Our cheetahs can be found in the Wildlife Survival Zone at the southwest corner of the zoo.