The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal and Africa’s most endangered cat. Uniquely adapted for speed, the cheetah is capable of reaching speeds greater than 110 kilometers per hour in just over 3 seconds, and at top speed their stride is 7 meters long. With its long legs and very slender body, the cheetah is quite different from all other cats and is the only member of its genus, Acinonyx. The cheetah’s unique morphology and physiology allow it to attain the extreme speeds for which it’s famous, and is often referred to as the greyhound of cats.
Built for Speed
The Cheetah’s unique body structure, long legs flexible spine, semi-retractable claws, and long tail allow it to achieve the unbelievable top speed of 110 km/hr. The body is narrow and lightweight with long slender limbs. Specialized muscles allow for a greater swing to the limbs increasing acceleration.
Spots and Stripes
Adult cheetahs are easy distinguished from other cast by their solid black spots. The color and spots are a form of camouflage which helps cheetahs hunt prey and hide form other predators. Until about three months of age cheetah cubs have a thick silvery-grey mantle down their back. The mantle helps camouflage the cubs by imitating the look of an aggressive animal called a honey badger. This mimicry may help deter predators such as lions, hyaenas, and eagles from attempting to kill them.
Feet and Claws
Cheetah’s foot pads are hard and less rounded than the other cats. The pads function like tire treads providing them with increased traction in fast, sharp turns. The short blunt claws work which are considered semi-retractable are closer to that of a dog than of other cats. The claws work like the cleats of a track shoe to grip the ground for traction when running to help increase speed.
Flexible Spine and Stride
The extreme flexibility of the Cheetah’s spine is unique. This allows for more extension during running, thus making both its stride length and speed possible. The shoulder blade does not attach to the collar bone, thus allowing the shoulders to move freely. And, the hips pivot to allow the rear legs to stretch further apart when the body is fully extended. These unique features allow the cheetah to achieve strides of up to seven meters with four strides completed per second. There are two times in one stride when the cheetah’s body is completely off the ground: once with all four legs extended and once with all bunched under the body.
The Cheetah’s long muscular tail works like a rudder, stabilizing, and acting as a counter balance to its body weight. This allows sudden sharp turns during high speeds chases. The tail is also thought to be a signaling device, helping young cubs follow their mothers in tall grass. The tip of the tail varies in color from white to black among individuals.
Distinctive black tear stripes run from the eyes to the mouth. The stripes are thought to protect the eyes from the sun’s glare. It is believed that they have the same function as a rifle scope, helping cheetahs focus on their prey.
Cheetahs once ranged across the entire African continent, except for the Congo Basin, and into Asia from the Arabian Peninsula to eastern India. Today, cheetahs are found in only 23% of their historic African range and are extinct in their Asian range except for a small population in Iran of about 100 individuals.
As with all other species fighting extinction, the problem facing the cheetah is complex and multifaceted. However, most of the reasons for the cheetah’s endangerment can be grouped into three overarching categories:
Habit Loss, Fragmentation, and Degradation
Cheetahs require vast expanses of land with suitable prey, water, and cover sources to survive. As wild lands are destroyed and fragmented by the human expansion occurring all over the world, the cheetah’s available habitat is also destroyed, fragmented, and degraded thus reducing the land’s carrying capacity (number of animals an area can support) of cheetahs and their prey. Numerous landscapes across Africa that could once support thousands of cheetahs now struggle to support just a handful.
In protected areas like national parks and wildlife reserves, cheetahs do not fare well as these areas normally contain high densities of other larger predators like the lion, leopard, and hyena, all of which compete with cheetahs for prey and will kill cheetahs given the opportunity. In such areas, the cheetah cub mortality can be as high as 90%. Therefore, roughly 90% of cheetahs in Africa live outside of protected lands on private farmlands and thus often come into conflict with people.
When a predator threatens a farmer’s livestock, they also threaten the farmer’s livelihood. The farmer of course acts to protect his resources, often trapping or shooting the cheetah. Because cheetahs hunt more during the day, people see them more often than the nocturnal predators and are therefore blamed for livestock kills they are not responsible for. This, coupled with the fact that the majority of cheetahs live on private farmlands, results in a high rate of persecution on the cheetah, making human-wildlife conflict one of the leading causes of the cheetah’s endangerment.
Illegal Wildlife Trade
For thousands of years, the ancient world’s rich and royal kept cheetahs in captivity. The pharaohs of Ancient Egypt kept cheetahs as close companions. Italian nobles, Russian princes, and Indian royalty used cheetahs for hunting and as a status symbol for their wealth and nobility. Because cheetahs do not breed well in captivity, they had to be caught from the wild to support this exorbitant demand, which wreaked havoc on cheetah populations, especially in Asia, and is likely the leading reason that the Asiatic cheetah is extinct throughout the majority of Asia.
Today, there is still a high demand for cheetahs as pets. To supply this demand, cheetahs have to be illegally captured from the wild and then smuggled to the different parts of the world they are desired. Out of all the cheetah cubs smuggled, only one of in six survives the journey, therefore requiring even more cubs be captured from the wild to meet the demand. The illegal trade in cheetahs is therefore a significant contributor to the cheetah’s population decline and endangerment.
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