Built for Speed
Cheetahs are not heavy, powerful animals like other big cats, so they rely on speed to catch prey and escape danger. They have long legs and a slender build, plus a very flexible spine that helps them take long strides as they run. The long tail helps cheetahs keep their balance when running at top speed or when making sharp turns as they pursue prey. Unlike other cats, the claws are not covered by a sheath, and they are only partially retractable. Since they are left exposed, the claws provide additional traction during rapid acceleration. Cheetahs can accelerate to 45 miles per hour in two seconds and can attain a top speed of 70 miles per hour over short distances.
Stalk and Sprint
The cheetah’s tan coloration and black spots helps it blend into the grassland habitat. They stalk their prey to within about 300 feet and then sprint to pounce on the prey animal. Although cheetahs are very fast, they do not have great endurance. Even though the average high-speed chase only last 20-60 seconds, cheetahs often must rest and catch their breath after capturing prey before they can begin eating. Cheetahs eat their fill at one time but do not return to the kill later so they need to hunt more frequently than other predators. Due to their smaller size and non-aggressive nature, they often lose kills to other predators like lions, leopards and hyenas.
Cheetahs are very unique cats; they are about the same size as leopards but much thinner. Their fur is covered with round spots rather than rosettes, like the leopard. They purr instead of roaring like other big cats and their claws are only partially retractable. Cheetahs live and hunt in the same general area as lions and leopards but unlike these larger cats, cheetahs rely on speed not strength to capture prey. Because of their smaller size, cheetahs often lose their kills to other predators and also have difficulty protecting their cubs from predators.
IUCN Status: Vulnerable.
The IUCN classifies also classifies the Asiatic subspecies as critically endangered, and the African subspecies as endangered. It is estimated that there are only 10,000-15,000 cheetahs left in the wild. Their numbers are rapidly declining due to habitat destruction or conversion to farmland, elimination of prey species and direct persecution. Although there are laws against hunting cheetahs, they are still illegally poached for their beautiful fur.