Cheetah | Kruger Park Guides

Cheetah

Cheetah are highly specialised but also quite timid. So without their ability to reach the speeds they do, they would quickly die from hunger. As a result, they rank quite low in the hierarchy of predators found in their environment and due to their more slender build, avoid contact with other predators whenever possible.
 
 
Kruger National Park – Mammal Guide
  Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Kruger National Park – Mammal Guide
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
 
Speedy and highly-specialised

Cheetahs are simply awesome and perfectly-conditioned to survive in the African bush.

An animal that can move at incredible speeds is surely something quite spectacular (110 kilometres/hour or 68 miles/hour - imagine that!?). 

Admittedly, cheetahs are not able to continuously run at this speed and can only do so for a few seconds, but that does not take anything away from the achievement. 

Usain Bolt at his peak managed a stunning 44.72 kilometres/hour at a race in Berlin on 16 August 2009. This may put it into perspective for you - we could give Usain Bolt an almost 50m head start in a 100m race and he’d still come second!

Cheetah are highly specialised but also quite timid. So without their ability to reach the speeds they do, they would quickly die from hunger. As a result, they rank quite low in the hierarchy of predators found in their environment and due to their more slender build, avoid contact with other predators whenever possible. 

It’s common for lions, hyenas and leopards to chase cheetahs off of their kill and they are hesitant to put up a fight when this does happen. And, because they are prone to having their kills stolen from them, they will start eating their kill where it gives them the most sustenance, eating from their prey’s rump and also gaining access to organs such as the liver, which provides the needed sustenance and energy they need to survive.

What physiological factors enable a cheetah to perform this feat of speed? To start off with, its slender build, akin to a greyhound dog, gives a significant advantage in speed over a longer distance than, say, a lion. Long legs, loose hips and shoulder joints, and a flexible spine also assist and a cheetah at full speed is capable of one stride as long as 25 feet! 

On top of that, cheetahs have unusually wide nostrils giving them much needed and free flowing oxygen at a higher rate during bursts of speed, as well as large lungs and arteries and a powerful heart that allows more oxygen to reach their muscles.

A cheetah’s tail is also used extensively when running at full speed, acting as a rudder and counterweight to increase its agility and stability. 

In an article from UCT, Dr. Amir Patel made some interesting discoveries about this animal. It was previously thought that a cheetah’s long tail accounted for up to 10% of its body weight, but it turns out that it’s actually less than 2%. 

Dr. Patel determined that a cheetah’s tail creates significant aerodynamic drag, allowing it to redirect its movement in a stable way. 

So where does the cheetah get its name? The name is derived from Hindustani, meaning painted, referring to its beautiful coat. Its Latin name - Acinonyx jubatis - can be referenced as follows:

Acinonyx is derived from two Greek words, akinitos, meaning unmoved and onyx meaning nail or hoof, referring to a cheetah’s inability to retract its claws like other cats. Jubatus is Latin for crested referring to a cheetah’s long hair on its nape.

Cheetahs are found throughout the Kruger National Park, albeit in small numbers. They are primarily diurnal, meaning mostly active in the day with peak activity around sunrise and sunset. It has, however, recently been revealed that cheetahs are active at night and do hunt, especially when the moon is bright and able to provide enough light for them to see. 

During the hottest time of the day, it’s common to find a cheetah lying under a bush in an elevated position to scan the area around it for other harmful predators and prey. 

A cheetah’s home ranges are large, with an average of 76 square kilometres, measured in South Africa. In Namibia, however, where prey is far scarcer, home ranges can exceed 1,500 square kilometres, especially for females who tend to have larger home ranges than males.

Habitat

Due to depictions in many wildlife documentaries and films, it is thought that cheetahs are exclusively found on open plains like the area around Satara Camp in the Kruger National Park. 

This, however, is untrue as they are equally happy to associate themselves with savanna woodland, close to camps such as Pretoriuskop and Skukuza - a fact confirmed by us often seeing cheetah on game drives between Pretoriuskop and Skukuza where woodland is prevalent.

Whilst on a Kruger National Park safari, it’s always a special moment when you come across cheetah walking in the road, or in the bush close to your vehicle. 

The usual response is that they are bigger than people realise and, with a maximum shoulder height of close to 80cm, it’s no wonder our guests are often surprised at how big they can get. 

 
 

During the hottest time of the day, it’s common to find a cheetah lying under a bush in an elevated position to scan the area around it for other harmful predators and prey.

Cheetahs are found throughout North, East and Southern Africa, but never really in large numbers. They are usually solitary or in small groups - often brothers that grow up together and remain together throughout their lives. 

Food

Cheetahs are not particularly successful when hunting, achieving an approximate 10% success rate. They usually hunt antelope such as impala, kudu and young zebras, even attempting birds when the opportunity presents itself. 

Zebras are riskier and they do often get injured when attempting to hunt larger animals. Cheetahs will approach to around 100 metres, where the chase starts. They will actively seek out younger, more vulnerable animals, using their dew claws to secure a hold and throw their prey off balance, where it is immediately seized by the throat. 

An animal that has been running that hard, suddenly gets its oxygen taken away from it, succumbs quickly and relatively painlessly. The large nostrils found on the cheetah are especially useful in this situation as they are able to still breathe relatively comfortably even whilst their mouths are full.

King cheetah

The spots on its back are replaced by stripes, and whilst some people theorise that the King cheetah is genetically different to the normal cheetah, it is in fact simply a colour variant of Acinonyx jubatis. They are rare but have been spotted and seen in the Tshokwane region of the Kruger National Park.

In conclusion, what are your chances of seeing a cheetah on a Kruger National Park safari? To be honest, not great as there are not many of them and they blend in perfectly with their environment. Spotting them is difficult. It is, of course, possible though, and usually a sighting that won’t easily be forgotten.

 
 
Fast Facts:
 

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