The cheetah is the world's fast land mammal and one of the most elegant big cats on the continent.
Cheetahs are some of the most notable African inhabitants. They are the fastest land animals and, because of this, have a typically athletic build: muscularly lean, and as lightweight as possible. Their tan coat of fur and the small black spots that cover it often make people confuse them with the stockier tree-climbing leopard. Their top speed of roughly 110 km/h is achieved within a few meters of sprinting, but they are only able to keep this up for a few hundred meters. The environment they are found in or the size and shape of their dots are usually enough to distinguish them from other cats. Males and females both weigh in the region of 21 to 72 kg (46 to 159lb), with females naturally making up the bottom end of this scale and males the top.
Cheetahs are still quite widely spread across Africa, although the strength of numbers in these areas is not what it used to be. Their range starts off in Southern Africa, in areas mostly around the Kruger National Park, where their numbers are the strongest, and then on to regions of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, excluding the desert but including the Miombo woodlands. Angola, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia make up the rest of the countries in which they have a significant range. Scattered areas of West Africa and the coast of the Mediterranean, along with a streak on the edge of the Sahara, make up the rest of their distribution.
Cheetahs are another one of the tragic carnivore species which have seen a drastic decline over the past few decades. They are, overall, considered and labeled as 'vulnerable', but some sub-species are not as fortunate. For example, the Northwest African cheetah is critically endangered. In addition to poaching, the loss of habitat and prey have left them with negative growth each year for the last few years, which has forced their population down to where it is now. They are still quite widespread, but are not nearly as prolific as their ancestors who roamed the great open spaces of Africa. The Kruger National Park is one of the few areas in South Africa where they are still found naturally.
Cheetahs are regular residents of grasslands and woodland areas, but require a certain amount of cover for them to optimally go about their business hunting antelope and gazelles. Fast antelope, which usually occupy open plains, are their main source of food. The impala fulfills this role in the Kruger National Park, and accounts for around 70% of cheetah kills. They need a bit of cover in the form of medium grass, shrubs or scattered trees to be able to get close enough to their prey due to their lack of stamina. The cheetah might be the fastest land mammal on earth, but they can only keep up their high speeds for a few hundred meters, and have to get as close to their prey as possible before starting the chase because of this.
Cheetahs, like other cats, are solitary among the vast majority of the species but do form groups in the form of all-male coalitions and mothers caring for their latest litter. They are most active during the daytime where they patrol areas of their territory for prey. Their prey is often migratory, and so their home ranges often take them to new places away from territories in search of food, in a total area sometimes as large as 1 000 square kilometers, like in the Serengeti of Tanzania. Females generally have larger, more open home ranges, while males compete for the elite hunting grounds in an area, often wandering outside of their own territory.
Cheetahs produce a variety of different vocal calls, many of which are very un-catlike and may resemble sounds made by birds or dogs. They, too, have a greeting ritual or tradition similar to that of hyenas where they sniff one another from front to back, but do not generally rub against one another. They travel many kilometers each day, some 3 to 7 on average, and sometimes lose contact with one another during this time, for example when a mother goes in search of prey and is forced to leave her cubs in thickets of grass. This happens almost daily in the wild, and upon returning to them, cubs will call out to their mother.
Females start mating from the earliest months after their 2nd birthday, sometimes even before. Courtship between males and females, who rarely see one another, is never really the same, with no constant sequence of events leading up to the female’s inevitable conception. She will carry her cubs for 90 – 95 days before they are born within thick grass cover, where they will remain for the first month of their lives. They are usually 3 to 4 in total, and they be will accompanied by, protected and cared for by their mother for the next year or so before going out into the world independently.
Cheetahs are very vulnerable animals. They are easily chased off their kills by spotted hyenas, lions and leopards, with the additional threat of birds of prey for juvenile or young cheetahs. Mothers do, however, go out of their way to try and defend their young against predators. Their most frequent display of aggression is when their backs are stretched low; their legs are all spread out wide and their large teeth give the warning that they are not afraid to charge at will. Lions ruthlessly kill cheetahs whenever they get the chance and, because of this, cheetahs flee the moment they even hear the sound of a lion's roar.
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