December 4th is a very special day…yes, it’s National Cookie Day, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. It’s International Cheetah Day! This day was created to bring awareness to the issues facing this unique member of the feline family. Currently listed as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it is estimated that there are just over 7,000 cheetahs left in the wild. With their numbers believed to be rapidly declining, it has been suggested that this animal be upgraded to “Endangered” to bring more attention to its falling populations, but this has yet to occur.
The biggest threat to the cheetah’s continued existence is habitat loss, as its native lands are increasingly being cleared for use as farmland. Cheetahs have large territories, and do not coexist well with humans. They are known to be especially susceptible to interference from humanity compared to other large, endangered cats (such as the leopard). The cheetah’s range once spread across nearly the entire African continent and into much of south Asia, but now it is restricted to much smaller areas in Africa with a very small population still in Iran.
The cheetah is the only living member of the genus Acinonyx. They are closely related to the mountain lion and the lynx, rather than other spotted big cats like the leopard and the jaguar. The cheetah is built for speed, with its slim body, long legs, and deep chest, making it very different from most other large cats. It’s the fastest animal on land, able to reach between 50 and 70 miles per hour in short bursts as it runs down its prey. It feeds mainly on animals like the Thomson’s gazelle, which is often too fast for other predators to catch. Other less common prey animals include the kudu and sable antelope, wildebeests, zebras and rarely giraffes on the African savannahs it calls home. But just as impressive as the cheetah’s top speed is its acceleration: it can reach full speed in just three seconds. That’s just as quick as some of the fastest supercars in the world.
As previously mentioned, the cheetah is quite similar to the leopard and jaguar, two other large cat species. All three are yellowish gold in color with a coat of black spots, but it’s pretty easy to tell them apart. Not only are jaguars and leopards much more heavily built than the cheetah, with larger heads and thicker legs and bodies, but their spots are also quite different. Cheetahs have small, tightly spaced black spots, while leopards and jaguars have spots that form individual groupings called “rosettes”, in which several spots form a rose-shaped pattern. Cheetahs also have two black, tear-like streaks on its face that begin at the inside corner of the eye and trace down the side of the nose. Unlike the “big cats” of the Panthera genus, cheetahs cannot roar.
Cheetahs are remarkable animals that deserve respect and protection. Take the time on this International Cheetah Day to spread the word about these amazing speedsters. Visit https://internationalcheetahday.com/#HowToHelp to learn more about how to help and get involved.
Bernie’s Bonus Fun Fact: Ancient cultures, including the Ancient Egyptians, trained tame cheetahs as hunting animals. They were also kept as pets by royalty, including Chinese emperors.