Excerpted from
Animals of Africa


CHEETAHS, the world's fastest land animals, barely seem to touch the ground when they streak across the grasslands in pursuit of prey. The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) gets up to speed through a combination of running and leaping. Going into a sprint, the light-boned cheetah uses every inch of its long, lithe body to accelerate from 0 to 45 miles per hour in two seconds. Its nonretractable claws and wide paw pads provide traction. Its large nostrils and lungs enable it to produce tremendous bursts of oxygen. Its leg muscles are complex; one set is designed for walking, the other for high-speed hunts.

Slowed down, the cheetah's sprint looks like this: Pushes off on one of its powerful back legs, sending the body forward. Launches off the ground with the other back leg. Touches the ground with one front leg. Touches down the other front leg, which then pulls the cheetah forward. The spine acts like a spring, fully flexing the body. (A race horse, by comparison, keeps its spine rigid and relies entirely on its legs for speed.) In the air, the flying cheetah moves so fast that it uses its tail as a rudder.

Such speed demands a short, enormous surge of energy. The cheetah's highest recorded speed, 71 miles per hour, can be sustained for about 300 yards. On its hunts, the cheetah is well aware of the limits of its built-for-speed body. Most other cats hunt at night and ambush their prey. Cheetahs will hunt at night, but they are frequently seen hunting in the early morning or late afternoon. A cheetah stalks its prey until only about 50 yards separate the hunter and the hunted. At this point the cheetah charges, its elongated eyes giving it a wide-angle view as the prey tries to evade with tight turns. Lions give up the chase after 100 yards or so, but cheetahs can run more than three miles--at an average speed of 45 miles per hour. The hunt may end in a spring that lasts from 20 to 60 seconds.

When the cheetah overtakes its prey, it smashes into the animal, knocking it down. It then grabs the prey's throat and closes its jaw on the victim's windpipe, suffocating it. To thwart lion hijackers, the cheetah often hauls its meal into trees. (Lions can leap into trees, but usually do not climb them.) Cheetahs use trees, termite mounds, and hilltops as vantage points, keen eyes ever searching for prey. Cheetahs, which exhaust themselves in their sprint chases, seem to work harder for their food than most other big cats.

The cheetah's hunting success varies with terrain and prey. But usually it can make only one charging sprint in a chase. Then it must get its breath, perhaps losing the prey. Few animals, however, can escape the cheetah. Usually a prey's only chance is to spot the cheetah early or elude an inexperienced cheetah cub.

Mothers with cubs may make a kill every day; other adults hunt every two to five days. Cubs--usually three, though there may be as many as eight in a litter--begin to follow the hunt when they are about six weeks old. At the age of six months, they start learning about hunting from their mother. She will, for instance, capture a small mammal and then present it to her cubs alive. Under her gaze, they then can practice the usual cheetah killing technique: Seize the prey by the throat and strangle it. The cubs may spend as long as two years with their mother before going off on their own.

The cheetah's prey includes gazeles, springbok, steenbok, duikers, and impalas, along with birds, hares, and the young of warthogs, kudu, hartebeests, oryx, roans, and sables. The primary food for most cheetah populations are small species of antelope, particularly impalas and Thomson's gazelles. Bird-catching cheetahs have been credited with luring the prey by imitating a targeted bird's call. Perhaps, the cheetah does have a relatively muted repertoire that includes growling, hissing, barking, purring, loud yelping that can be heard a mile away, and a chirping sound that mothers use to call to their cubs.

At maturity, the cheetah has yellow or tan fur with solid black spots that cover nearly all of the body, except the throat, which is white. The long, spotted tail ends in a series of black rings and a white tip. Its head seems too small for its body, but the proportion fits into the design for speed. The cheetah's distinctive teardrop markings camouflage it in shadowy grass. The dark outlines around its eyes help to shade them against the African sun. In maturity, cheetahs weigh from 110 to 130 pounds, stand about 32 inches tall at the shoulder, and are about 56 inches long; their tails, which have a rudder-like upward curve, are 30 to 32 inches long.

The cheetah family arrangement differs considerably from the lion pride. Females usually live solitary lives, except when they have cubs; but they will remain in the territory of their own birth. Males travel in "coalitions" of two to four, defending territories against other males. Males are believed to maintain their coalitions for life. Their territories encompass the territories of females, but male and female get together only to mate.

"Cheetah" comes from a Hindi word that translates as "spotted one." The spotted ones once had a vast domain, stretching from biblical lands and the Arabian Peninsula through parts of Russia and India and much of Africa. Tamed by Sumerians and worshipped by Egyptians, cheetahs became pets in many Asian courts, as noted by Marco Polo. Famous cheetah pet owners include Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, and Akbar the Great of India who, in the second half of the sixteenth century, reportedly kept 9,000 cheetahs! Asians began the practice of using cheetahs as hunters.

Known as "hunting leopards," trained cheetahs would be taken, hooded and on horseback or in a cart, to a likely spot for what was called "coursing," or hunting by sight, rather than by scent. The hunter would sight game, remove the hood, and unleash the cheetah. Like a falcon, the cheetah would pull down the game, and its master would claim it. The cheetah got a share of the kill as a reward.

Cheetah pelts were cherished as symbols of power, but the killing of cheetahs for pelt or sport did not imperil the species until modern times. At the turn of the nineteenth century there were about 100,000 cheetahs on earth in a range that included India. (The cheetahs in India had been wiped out by the 1950s.) Today cheetahs are extremely endangered, with only about 12,500 alive in Africa. Namibia, with an estimated 2,500, has the largest population. Because there is only one cheetah species in Africa, the cats are particularly vulnerable to epidemics and are considered at high risk for extinction.

Africa's leopard (Panthera pardus), whose populations include several subspecies, is not as imperiled. Hundreds of thousands live in sub-Saharan Africa, although farmers and poachers exterminated them in South Africa. They can adapt to habitats ranging from the desert to 18,500 feet up the slope of Mount Kilimanjaro, a fact used by Hemingway in his classic short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Leopards spend much of their time in trees, where, sometimes spending days at a leisurely feast, they eat without fear of meat-snatching lions. During a drought or a shortage of large prey, leopards will eat insects and birds and even catch fish. A night-hunter known as "companion of the moon," the leopard may range over 15 to 20 miles in search of food.

Africa is home to some 20 small cats, such as the caracal (Felix caracal) and the serval (F. serval), and catlike animals, such as the African civet (Civettictis civetta). They are all secretive, cunning, and rarely seen except in zoos. "After 18 years in Africa, I have seen a serval twice, a civet once, and the rest not at all," wrote naturalist Norman Myers. "But I have come across lions and cheetahs hundreds of times."

The serval, a sharp-eared, solitary night hunter, has been known to leap nearly ten feet into the air to snare an unsuspecting bird. The caracal, a supple predator of woodland and savanna, is about the size of a house cat. It too can leap into the air to catch birds and can pull down a dik-dik as big as itself. The civet, about the size of a cocker spaniel, eats small mammals, snakes, frogs, and insects. It also prowls around villages at night in search of chickens and goat kids.

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