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The cheetah – an amazing cat

Wild Cats Namibia

The cheetah is the fastest running mammal in the world, reaching speeds of up to 100 km/hour. From standstill to a sprint they can reach 70 km/hour in 2 seconds, then 100 km/hour in just 3 seconds! The cheetah can only run at these high speeds for 300 / 400 meters before having to stop, if not it could cause possible overheating of its body. The body of a cheetah is built for speed. They have small heads for less air resistance, very large nostrils to allow maximum oxygen intake to fuel their muscles, a slender build with long legs and a tail that flattens towards the end to act as a rudder to help keep its balance while running at high speed.

The cheetah is not very powerful compared to most other large predators, so it needs its prey to run in order to use the prey’s momentum to pull it down to the ground. When chasing after its prey, the cheetah uses its dew claw to hook onto the animal’s lower leg to try trip it. If successful, it then uses its jaws to suffocate the prey by a bite to the neck or by using is mouth to cover the prey’s whole muzzle, which prevents the animal from making too much noise while being suffocated. Too much noise from its prey in distress may attract the attention of unwanted visitors such as hyenas and lions that will inevitably steal the cheetahs kill, as the cheetah would rather flee than defend it.

The cheetah being a rather weak predator loses up to 90% of its kills to lion, hyena, leopard and even packs of jackals, so when a kill is made it quickly eats as much of the soft meat as possible before it is stolen.

The larger predators are more active at night and sleep during the warmer daylight hours making it a lot safer for cheetah hunt during the day. A possible adaptation that the cheetah has is the black tear lines that start around the edges of the eyes, running down to the outer edges of the mouth. The dark colour aids its vision by absorbing excess light, thus preventing too much glare into the eyes.

The female, after a gestation of 90 – 95 days gives birthto 3, sometimes 4 cubs. The colouration of the cubs seems to resemble that of the honey badger. The upper part of the body is white to grey in colour with the lower parts almost black. The manner, in which the youngsters walk, is very similar to that of the honey badger.

Many animals including large predators are very wary of honey badgers, as they have earned a reputation for being rather aggressive and tough to kill. For the cheetah’s cubs to mimic such a fierce animal is a great advantage, as this may increase their chances of survival against other predators for the first few weeks after birth. By 12 – 15 months of age the cub’s colouration is much the same as the adults.

Unfortunately the survival rate of cheetah cubs is very low with a possible 1 in every three cubs living to 2 years of age. Many cubs are killed by the larger predators, especially in the first few weeks after birth, so to keep the cubs as safe as possible the female moves the cubs from hiding place to another every 3 or 4 days.

A female with cubs needs to hunt on a regular basis and as they grow older she may need to hunt every day, especially if she has 3 or 4 cubs. From the age of 6 months the female starts teaching the cubs to hunt and by 14 months the cubs regularly join the female on hunts. By 16 – 18 months the cubs are ready to hunt by themselves which is also the time when they are chased away by their mother, to be independent of her for the first time.

Due to the excessive trophy hunting of the past, the cheetah population in many game reserves is seriously low. The Kruger National park’s cheetah numbers are currently dwindling on about 300 individuals, resulting in a very weak gene-pool. Namibia has the highest population of between 6000 and 9000.

Fortunately there are a number of breeding programs which have had relative success in breeding and introducing cheetah into the wild and by introducing specimens from Namibia into these breeding projects it helps to strengthen the gene-pool and give hope for the future survival of the cheetah.

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