10 Facts About the Cheetah and the Threats it Faces

Cheetahs – the swift, spotted slender predators – once had a large range, stretching across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Within the past 50 years, though, their population has seen a sharp drop due to human activities. Their numbers have decreased from 15,000 to an estimated 7,000 in that time, and they’re now only found in about 10% of their former range. They’ve also since gone extinct in more than a dozen countries and are currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Today, they’re found primarily in southern and eastern Africa, with small populations in North Africa and Iran. They can live in a variety of habitats, including grasslands, savannahs, deserts, and mountainous areas. As this majestic cat faces threats to its survival, learn more about it and what can be done to help save it.

They’re the Fastest Land Animal

If you’re driving along at the speed limit on your average urban freeway, a cheetah could pass you. They can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour and get up to that speed from a stationary position in only a few seconds. They do this with frames ranging from 80 pounds to 140 pounds, long bodies that can measure up to nearly five feet (not including the tail), and special pads on their feet that are accompanied by claws that can’t completely retract, providing them with traction. Their tails are also rudder-like, helping them maintain balance as they run after prey.

They Can’t Roar

Cheetah making vocalization

Unlike other larger cats, cheetahs can’t roar. This is one of the reasons that they’re not considered one of the “big cats”. That doesn’t mean they aren’t vocal, though. They can purr like housecats, chirp, growl, and hiss to communicate with each other. Chirps serve a variety of purposes, from expressing distress, a readiness to mate, or as a greeting during a reunion.

They Aren’t on the Prowl at Night

Wild cat species tend to hunt at night, but not cheetahs. They do so during the day, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon. They use their speed bursts to overtake animals and then hold on tight to their windpipes with their jaws. Despite their speed, though, they lack stamina and need to rest after these short sprints. That means they take a break before eating, but they have to balance that with eating quickly, as other predators like lions and hyenas will steal their kill if they don’t.

Their Tear Marks Aren’t Sad, They’re Functional

Cheetah closeup with tear marks
PHOTO: PIXABAY / Andreas Göllner

Part of the cheetah’s distinctive look is the black tear marks surrounding their eyes. It may give them a slightly weepy look, but it actually serves a purpose. The black marks help reduce glare from the sun when they hunt, since they do so during daylight hours.

Their Spots Are Unique

The cheetah’s spots set it apart from other animals, but they also set them apart from each other. Each cheetah has a unique set of spots, like humans’ fingerprints, which help with identifying each individual. As a whole, the spots also help with camouflage during hunts and to keep cubs safe.

Mama Does the Childrearing Alone

Adult female cheetahs mostly fly solo, except when they have cubs in tow. The mother will teach the cubs the basics of hunting but will also often leave them to find prey for herself when they’re little and breastfeeding. This unfortunately opens cubs up to predators, which is the primary reason most cubs don’t make it to adulthood. To help counteract this, mothers will do their best to move cubs around to put predators off the scent.

Cheetah mother and cubs sit on tree

Some cheetahs can be very connected with their young, too, as was shared in a story by Craig Saffoe, curator of the Great Cats and Bears units at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. He said that in 2005, when resident cheetah Zazi gave birth to a stillborn cub, she cared for it like it was still alive.

Saffoe shared, “She was grooming it and moving it along with all the live cubs. That spoke to how good a mother she really is. It’s being a good mother beyond what is reasonable, because in the wild that would not benefit her to try to care for that cub. It could potentially hurt her to expend the energy necessary to keep moving it along with all the others. Most carnivore moms in that situation would consume the offspring.”

In the wild, meanwhile, cubs leave their mothers at around 18 months of age. A few months after that, females set off on their solitary life, but male littermates will stick together, forming groups called coalitions. At times, unrelated males will join them. They hunt together and have their own territory as a group.

Cheetah littermates together

Generations Have ‘Communicated’ at the Same Natural Sites

To communicate with each other, male cheetahs will often leave their scent, through urine or droppings, in certain areas. This could be on trees, rocks, or termite mounds, which then serve as scent communication hubs for all area cheetahs. Research into this behavior has found that oftentimes, these areas are used for decades, and knowing where they are may help minimize livestock producers killing cheetahs.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at data from more than 100 GPS collared cheetahs in Namibia, finding that they often marked and defended specific communication hubs within their territories. Other cheetahs were found to visit regularly, too, to get information on the other animals.

Cheetah investigates domain

Joerg Melzenheimer, study co-author and ecologist, explained, “You can think of these landmarks as the most popular bar in town. It’s the main address for all the boys and girls looking for partners to go. It’s a communication hub.”

He said he learned from area livestock producers that these information hot spots had been used as far as 80 years back. To help minimize calf predation and retaliatory killings, the team believed that it may be best to steer cattle clear of these hubs. Their findings backed their theory, because when ranchers moved their cattle away from these hubs during calving season, the number of calves they lost plummeted as cheetahs ate what was naturally in the area, rather than following the herd. This provides some confidence that avoiding problem areas could help cattle and cheetahs better coexist.

Climate Change May Impact Their Hunting Success

Cheetah runs toward prey

While cheetahs hunt during the day, they do so when it’s at its coolest, early in the morning or late in the afternoon. As climate change increases temperatures, though, it may be impacting this behavior in a negative way. A study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B showed that during warmer stretches, cheetahs were more apt to hunt at night, causing overlap with lions and other bigger animals that also hunt at that time and that often steal their kills.

They’re Important to Their Ecosystems

The presence of cheetahs is important to their ecosystems, as their position at the top of the food chain helps regulate the populations of the animals they eat. As these tend to be herbivores, that helps ensure their prey doesn’t become too abundant and impact the balance of the plants within the ecosystem. If that were to happen, there could be big impacts on biodiversity, soil erosion, and water issues.

They Face a Wide Variety Threats

Cheetah duo sits in sun

In addition to possible impacts of climate change and killings by livestock producers, cheetahs are threatened by loss and fragmentation of habitat. They often lack the connected spaces and natural prey they need for an expansive, healthy range. Humans also put them at further risk due to poaching and due to the illegal pet trade snatching up cubs.

These threats are in addition to more natural issues they face, including low genetic diversity, which comes with health and reproductive problems. The extremely low cub survival rate is also impacted by this.

We’re working with partners to address some of these issues, though, including habitat loss and human conflict. If you’d like to help, click below!

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