Undoubtedly, the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is the swiftest mammal on land and can reach speeds of 97 or perhaps 113 km per hour (60 or 70 miles per hour) over short distances. However, it usually chases its prey at only about half that speed and will need half an hour after the chase to catch its breath before it can eat.
In real hunting situations, where cheetah may be slowed down because of weaving prey and the need to circumvent obstacles, the cheetah’s actual speeds may even be much lower.
Even though its speed makes it a fearsome hunter, the cheetah is the most vulnerable of the world’s big cats. The IUCN currently lists this cat as vulnerable to extinction, and fewer than 7,000 adult cheetahs remain in the wild.
The cheetah is famous for its tan coat covered in black spots, with unique patterns it uses to identify others. It has bold black tear-like stripes from the inner corners of its eyes down to both sides of its mouth, and the end of the bushy tail has black coloured rings.
It is the only big cat with a semi-retractable claw—rather than the fully retractable claws that help lions tear flesh and climb trees.
Like leopards, cheetahs are solitary in their habits, but their greyhound-like build, distinctive black tear-marks and preference for grassland and savanna habitats preclude confusion.
In Uganda, Cheetah occurs almost exclusively in the Karamoja region, in Kidepo Valley National Park. Here, an estimated 53–310 cheetahs flourish with an abundance of the wild cat’s most preferred prey, the small-sized ungulates.
Most Uganda safaris trip that head north will visit Kedepo Valley just to set eyes on the cheetah and witness the biodiversity of Uganda’s Mara. You can fly there on a domestic scheduled flight or take the 10-hour drive from Kampala on a newly surfaced road via Murchison Falls National Park junction in Masindi.
The cheetah’s body is uniquely adapted to help it reach top speeds: long, slender limbs, hard foot pads, and the flexible spine give it duplicated long strides. The wild cat’s light tail acts like a rudder, and its semi-retractable claws work like the spikes on a sprinter’s shoe to offer stability during the chase.
It also has a large nasal cavity that helps it pump in oxygen, and the shape of its inner ears allows it to maintain balance and keep its head still as it sprints.
Before unleashing its speed, the cheetah will use its exceptionally keen eyesight to scan the grassland for signs of prey—especially antelope and warthog but sometimes smaller animals such as hares and birds.
It hunts in the daylight to benefit from stealthy movement and a spotted coat that allows it to blend easily into long savannah grasses.
Although it hunts at high speeds, it cannot sustain top speeds for more than a few hundred metres.
Cheetahs, unlike many other African predators, rarely scavenge. In areas with high densities of large carnivore competitors, the cheetah can lose up to around 10% of their kills to kleptoparasitism, particularly to lions and spotted hyenas, and tend not to remain long with their kills, abandoning the carcass once they have eaten their kill.
These sly wild cats are the least powerful of the large predators: they lose a high percentage of their kills, and other predators kill 50% of cheetah cubs before they reach three months of age.
Male cheetahs are strongly territorial, and, in some areas, they commonly defend their territory in pairs or trios.
Cheetahs have a unique social organisation among wild cats; females are solitary or accompanied by dependent young, and males are either solitary or live in stable coalitions of two or three. Most coalitions consist of brothers, but unrelated males may also be group members.
Unlike the coalitions formed by male lions, where a single male from the alliance will guard and mate with a female throughout oestrus, female cheetahs appear to mate with as many males as possible and show no mate fidelity.
In areas where prey is migratory (such as the Serengeti plains), female Cheetahs follow the herds, while male coalitions establish small territories (average 30 square kilometres) centred on areas attractive to females. However, in areas where prey is non-migratory, males and females may have overlapping ranges that can be more similar in size.
Researchers hypothesise that the cheetah’s unique social system and ranging patterns originally evolved as a strategy to remain mobile in the presence of larger and stronger competitors, enabling the species to avoid direct competition in a Spatio-temporal heterogeneous landscape.
In the wild, cheetahs live a maximum of 14 years and five months for females and ten years for males. However, females don’t give birth beyond 12 years.
Cheetahs give birth to their first litter two years after a three-month gestation. The cubs are kept in a lair for the first two months, but their mother may leave to hunt in the mornings and return at dusk.