A weekly feature named ‘The Hunter’s High Road.’ (Somewhat late this week) Each Tuesday check back to see an animal that represents the apex of predatory evolution. Carnivores come in a range of shapes and sizes, using a variety of tricks to catch their prey. Some are powerful, some are beautiful. All are deadly.
Predators rely on all kinds of tools to hunt their prey – strength, speed, cunning, environment and tenacity. On the plains of Africa, one animal becomes the embodiment of speed to chase after its prey. The Cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, reaching up to 110-120 kilometres per hour in short busts. These big cats are among the most evolutionary robust animals in the world.
Coarse, short fur speckled with 2-3 cm round black spots provide camouflage on the savannah. Black ‘tear marks’ dotted around the corner of the eyes keep sunlight out and lets the Cheetah see for long distances. A lithe build makes it perfectly built for high speed chases in short bursts.
Big nostrils allow for increased oxygen intake and a large heart and lungs work together to circulate oxygen flow. Semi-retractable claws allow the Cheetah to glide across the landscape with good traction. The tail is designed to act like a rudder, helping to steer.
Despite all these adaptions it is agility, rather than speed that helps the Cheetah to catch prey. Sharp turns are involved in each chase, meaning the Cheetah must outflank the gazelle, impalas and wildebeest calves that it hunts. The chases last between 20-60 seconds and only half of them are successful. Providing the Cheetah makes a kill it eats quickly to avoid the meal being taken by larger predators.
Mating occurs throughout the year and females give birth to up to nine clubs. Cubs are born with a downy lining of fur around the neck called a mantle. It has been speculated that the mantle gives Cheetah clubs the appearance of the Honey Badger to deter potential attackers.
Cheetahs have a well maintained social order with females living alone unless they are raising cubs. The first 18 months of a cub’s life is essential in learning survival techniques. When they’ve reached this age, the mother leaves the cubs who form a sibling group that stay together for another 6 months. At 2 years the females leave the group and the males stay together for life.
Cheetahs are an endangered species that face threats from the loss of their habitat and food supply. Cubs face a high mortality rate from lions and hyenas and it’s been suggested a low genetic diversity also harms them. An estimated 9000 to 12000 Cheetahs remain in Africa and 200 living in isolated populations.
The Cheetah Conservation Fund founded in Namibia in 1990 is the leading authority in Cheetah conservation. They develop strong research, education and ecology practices to keep the population growing and healthy.
Cheetahs might not be the biggest of the big cats, but they are perhaps the most specialised in terms of hunting technique. Protecting these elegant animals is important because there is enough destruction in the world without adding another species to the mix.