When I first visited Africa in July of 2009 the cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, was the first species I saw and photographed. Although it was in a cheetah center rather than in the wild this species will always be special to me as it was like an ambassador, welcoming me to the continent where I feel most at home. While the lion is still my favorite the cheetah is a close second. It was not until my fourth trip back to Africa that I was able to once again see these magnificent animals and photograph them in the wild.

Cheetahs are the most specialized of the world’s big cats, essentially the feline version of a greyhound. These amazing cats have traded strength for incredible speed, reaching speeds of 90-112 kph (60-70 mph). Though they are incredibly fast they lack both stamina and the strength of their felid relatives. Their jaws are fairly weak and lack the major canine teeth of other cats. Without the strength of other predators they are easily run off of their kills. While in Tanzania’s  Tarangire National Park I witnessed a pair of cheetahs that had been run off of a warthog kill by vultures. It is very likely that the cheetahs fled the kill out of fear of the vultures attracting larger competition rather than by the vultures themselves. As for stamina they can only maintain their speed for a short distance, prey must be overtaken within 300 yards, before they need to cool down. In fact a cheetah can cause itself to overheat if it tries to run for too long.

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While predominantly solitary creatures cheetahs, mainly males, have been known to form coalitions. Males usually disperse and defend their own territories, but some litter mates have been known to stay together. The benefits of forming coalitions seems less obvious than in the case of lions. Females are solitary and wander amongst male territories. Having a coalition would not increase the likelihood of being visited by a receptive female. Single males would have a better chance of mating as they would not have to compete with a companion male for the right to copulate. The only benefit these males may receive is in hunting as having a companion would allow them to drag down larger prey.

Cheetahs that are actively hunting walk along alertly and will use termite mounds and low hanging tree limbs as vantage points. To get within range of prey the cheetah may wait at the vantage point if it sees prey grazing towards it or attempt a stalk. Some stalks are unsuccessful and do not result in a chase, but those that do result in chases are successful roughly 50% of the time. Serengeti cheetahs lose roughly 10% of their successful kills to other predators. However, females with cubs will occasionally try to defend these kills against hyenas and wild dogs, but will quickly yield to larger competitors such as lions.

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While cheetahs are fascinating creatures they face serious threats. Once widespread across Africa and into southern India cheetahs have now become severely limited in range. In the 1950s they became extinct in India and are now very rare throughout North Africa. They are still wide spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa but very sparsely distributed. To make matters worse a series of genetic bottle necks have led modern cheetahs to be over 90% similar in genetic make up. This degree of genetic uniformity means that one disease could possibly devastate cheetah populations and quite possibly push cheetahs into total extinction.

There is a glimmer of hope though as many organizations throughout the world are working tirelessly to save cheetahs. The De Wildt Cheetah Centre in South Africa works to relocate cheetahs captured near ranches to areas where they will not run into conflicts with humans. This centre, where I saw my first cheetah, also has an ambassador program in which they teach humans that cheetahs are not a major threat to livestock and attempt to foster good relations between ranchers and this species of cat.

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Back in the US at Texas A&M is another project which may benefit cheetahs. A professor there has been working mainly with bison, another species that has a severely limited genome, to collect DNA from hides taken prior to the genetic bottleneck the species went through. It is hoped that this genetic information can be spliced into modern bison and add more diversity back to their genetic code. In theory, this professor could do the same thing with cheetahs to hopefully provide them with enough genetic diversity to survive a disease that otherwise might wipe them out.

Cheetahs are an amazing species that have captured my heart. It took me three additional trips to Africa to finally catch glimpses of them in the wild, but the effort was well worth it as my latest trip provided three new cheetah sightings for a total of 6 cheetahs (one pair in Tarangire, a coalition of three in the Serengeti, and a solitary cheetah spotted a few hours after the coalition). It would be a great tragedy if we let this species slip out of existence. Fortunately there are many great people working to make sure this does not happen.