(Acinonyx jubatus)

Origin of the name

The vernacular name, Cheetah, is comes from ‘ cītā’, which comes from the old Sanskrit word ‘citra’ meaning variegated, adorned or painted. The generic name, Acinonyx, is derived from the combination of two Greek words: ‘akinitos’ meaning unmoved or motionless, and ‘onyx’ meaning nail – this is essentially a rather rough translation of the ‘immobile nails’, which is a reference to the Cheetah’s limited capability it has in retract its claws. The Latin word ‘jubatus’ means having a mane or crest, i.e. crested. This is a rather muddled name which in the end would be the “Crested Motionless immovable Nails” species. 

There is however another vernacular translation thats says it is derived from the Hindi word chiitaa which comes from the sanskrit chitraka meaning the “spotted one”.

The Cheetahs Body:

Cheetahs are a relatively large  measuring 2 m from the head to end of tail and 0.8 m at the shoulder. Being the worlds fastest land mammal it too has of course evolved over time and and this is evident in its physiology. Cheetah have a deeply indented chest which accommodates for the large lungs and heart which are the two main organs required to power this speedsters engine. They also have large paws with unretracted claws for grip and a tail that is much long er than most as it to has purpose and acts as a counterbalance steering the cheetah’s body when running at high speed.

The Cheetah’s head is rather small in proportion to its body but makes it more streamlined and has smaller ears to accommodate their design. Cheetah are easily recognised by distinct ‘tear marks’ which curve downwards from the tear-duct corners of the eyes to the corners of the mouth. A feature that is said to reduce glare on a bright and open savanna plain.

To accompany the large set of lungs, their small head and reduced dentition has made additional room for larger nasal aperture which improve their oxygen intake whilst at full sprint. On top of that they have modified and aerodynamic nostrils to  capture and maximise the flow of air through their energising coolant system. 

Speed and movement:

Cheetahs have been designed for speed and well known for being the worlds fastest land mammals. With many numbers being tossed around the truth is that they can reach speeds between 75–100 km/h at a full sprint. Their small heads, long legs, long flexible spines and narrow shoulders and hips all work together to enable it to reach these high speeds. 

BBC Video credit


The cheetah is a fairly vocal feline. It purrs like a house cat when content or when greeting other known individuals in its family group. They however also do growl, which is all to often accompanied by a sort of loud sharp hissing and spitting. This is typical behaviour when a Cheetah is faced with danger or a precarious situation.  In addition to their hissing, spitting and growling they will also hit the ground with their front paws. This also creates a further load and aggressive thud and accompanied with their agnostic type calls is meaningful display that says “leave me alone”. 

Perhaps the most fascinating call of all is their bird like chirp. Cheetah chirp when excited and can even stutter slightly. This particular call is used to attract other Cheetah in their social meetings, courtship or in an attempt to find another individual or youngster. A mother Cheetah searching for her cubs will use this chirp and the sound can be heard roughly 2km away and often confused with a bird.

Distribution in Africa and the Kruger National Park:

Historically cheetahs were distributed widely throughout Africa and occupied an extensive range of the continent. Over the past century however the known range has more than drastically reduced by 90%. This is a direct result if human encroachment and land pressure. Today there are roughly 6 700 adults across 29 subpopulations left in the wild. The two largest meta-populations occur in East Africa and southern Africa. Today in the Kruger National Park there is an estimated 427 adult individuals with the majority population found in the central and souther regions of the Park. 

Cheetah over the past 30 years have been studied extensively in South African parks with the core research being in Kruger as a result of it having the largest population group. A 2005 census was conducted in the Kruger National Park by both SANParks (South African National Parks) and the EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust) and collectively they managed to count 103 Cheetah in the Kruger as well as private nature reserves along the western boundary. This was then redone in 2009 showing an increase with 192 photographed individuals suggesting that there was gros error in 2005. The majority of these individuals, some 92 animals, where found in the 4,057 sqkm southern region that lies between the Crocodile and Sabie river systems. Only 69 individuals were seen and photographed above the Sabie river into the central region which expands some 6, 192 sqkm. The remaining animals where found in the far norther region above the Letaba river which makes up 11,102 sqkm. The 11 individuals photographed in this region were documented but researches noted that they didn’t believe that they had managed to completely find every animal. What the 2009 research also indicated was that adult animals far outweighed young and that females without young far outweighed the ratios seen in other reserves. What is noted by Mich Reardon is that its probable that that the reduced populations of Cheetah found north of the Sabie river probably is a direct correlation to the Increased Lion densities documented by Tol Pienaar in the 70’s. 


Cheetahs can be found in a wide range of habitats and eco-regions, ranging from dry forest and thick scrub through to grassland and hyper-arid deserts, such as the Sahara. They are only absent from tropical and montane forest. There are reports of cheetah at altitudes of 4 000 m. Possibly the distribution of their prey may influence their habitat preferences. Ideally, an open area with some cover, such as dispersed bushes, because it needs to stalk and pursue its prey over a distance, exploiting its speed. This also minimises the risk of encountering larger carnivores. They will drink when water is available hence the presence or absence of this resource is not an essential habitat requirement. Cheetahs have large home ranges within which there is a specific area which they prefer and will return to.


Cheetahs are diurnal predators (hunt during the day) to avoid the risk of the presence of larger predators. Although they are diurnal, they prefer hunting or moving around in the cooler morning and late afternoon (crepuscular). For a hunt to be successful, cheetahs need to get as close as possible to their prey, before starting the final sprint. This making them accomplished stalkers.

Cheetahs hunt in open areas, however they make use of any form of cover available to them or simply just walk towards their prey freezing immediately upon detection. They will try to get within 100 m of their target before embarking on a chase and mostly choose prey that is isolated from the rest of the herd. Once in chase, they will run after the prey for only a short time and they must ensure that they are able to gain on the prey almost immediately to trip it with their paw and lastly ensure a throat grip. If this is not possible the cheetah will abandon the chase.

Although cheetahs are relatively large in size, they avoid targeting large ungulates such as wildebeest, zebra, buffalo etc. This is mainly due to the fact that to pull down these animals requires a large amount of strength, which the cheetah lacks. This is also to avoid the risk of getting injured. A coalition of males may cooperatively pull down a larger target, but still go for younger animals. Their main prey consists of any small or medium-sized bovids, especially antelope. Prey with masses of up to 60 kg are favoured.

Cheetahs, unlike many other African predators, rarely scavenge. They are very picky eaters and usually skim the meat from the surface of the carcass. They usually eat the heart and liver and discard the intestines, bones and skin.

Due to being specialists in speed they lack defence mechanisms against larger predators such as lion, hyena and even vultures, which makes them susceptible to kleptoparasitism – a form of feeding in which one animal takes prey that was caught or collected by another animal. Cheetahs are usually exhausted after making a kill and only feed once they have caught their breath again.

They usually make use of vantage points that are elevated when resting/hunting. They are naturally poor climbers, but will stand on sloping tree branches or termite mounds to look out for prey or enemies such as lions.

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