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Cheetah facts

A cheetah © Colin Jackson

A cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in the Mara

When the rains come to the Masai Mara, life busts forth. The parched plains turn green, and herds of grazing animals come to feed on the lush new pastures. But for wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, the exuberant foliage is both saviour and curse. To the reserve's predators – and especially its cheetahs – the tall grass is the best hunting aid of all.

We all know about the cheetah's electrifying speed. Large nostrils and an enlarged heart and lungs help the world's fastest land animal to reach speeds of 114kph (71mph). A long tail helps it to balance as it tears after weaving, zig-zagging prey, and claws that never fully retract help it to maintain traction on the ground.

But speed alone is not enough, and an explosive bust of energy is only the endgame to a much longer and more subtle hunting strategy. Cheetahs have evolved to exploit the Mara landscape. They use the termite mounds and fallen logs that litter the plains to scan from distance for nervous, jittery prey. The tall grass provides perfect cover as they edge nearer. Only when the cheetah is close enough to be confident of a kill will it risk expending energy in an exhilarating but draining test of speed. On average, every second chase results in a kill.

The Mara's lush vegetation is useful in other ways, too. At an average of 54kg, the cheetah is the smallest of the big cats (and is classified in a separate genus – Acinonyx compared to Panthera – to lions and leopards), and is vulnerable to the other predators of the Mara. A female cheetah will hide her cubs in long grass to protect them, and move them every few days to keep lions and hyenas – always on the lookout for an easy snack – off their trail.

Cheetah with cubs

For females with cubs, the Mara can be a treacherous place. Previously on Big Cat, we saw Amber lose a litter to the Marsh lion pride, and Honey challenge an adult male lion – at grave risk – to give her cubs a few extra seconds to escape. Unlucky Amber also lost a litter to a herd of stampeding buffalo, though she has since successfully raised cubs to maturity.

The risk of confrontation with other predators has also given rise to another unique cheetah characteristic. Unusually, their night vision is no better than ours, and unlike other big cats, cheetahs hunt mainly during the day. They don't scavenge and need to kill frequently, and prefer hunting in the early morning and evening when the light is good and the sun is low, and lions are not too active. Despite that, it's not unusual to see lions or hyenas robbing a cheetah of its hard-earned meal.

Solitary females are particularly vulnerable, particularly with young to feed and defend. Males, on the other hand, are more sociable and often form groups – called coalitions – of between two and five animals that stay together for life. Together, they can vigorously, and viciously, defend typical territories of between 35-160sq km. Solitary females roam further, with home ranges as large as 150sq km.

But not in the Mara. The abundant prey means that male cheetahs rarely range beyond 20sq km, and females 80-100sq km. Despite the Mara's favourable conditions, however, cheetah numbers appear to be falling. Jonathan Scott estimated the cheetah population on the Mara reserve to be no more than 60 individuals in 2000, and by 2005 this number had fallen to 45. Life is tough for the Mara's smallest big cat.



Did you know?

  • A cheetah can accelerate to 114kph in about three seconds, quicker than most sports cars.
  • The genus name - Acinonyx - means 'no-move-claw' in Greek (Cheetahs can't retract their claws).
  • Cheetahs were once tamed and used to hunt antelopes by the aristocracy.
  • Cub mortality can reach 90 per cent - they are often killed by lions, hyenas and even baboons.
  • Individuals can be identified by coat markings and the black rings on the last third of the tail.
  • Unlike other big cats, Cheetahs cannot climb trees and have poor night-vison.
  • Cubs are born with a mantle of fur around the neck, which may disguise them from predators.

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