Cheetah SSP




Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus

Photo by Karen Meeks


Legal Status: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the cheetah as an Endangered Species. It is protected under CITES, Appendix I which bans international commerce but quotas for trophies are provided to Namibia (150) and Zimbabwe (50). In the IUCN Red List, cheetahs are listed as a Vulnerable species. There are an estimated 9,000 - 12,000 cheetahs in the wild, with the largest population (2,500) being found in Namibia.

Description: The sleek cheetah has many adaptations that help make it the world's fastest land animal. It has a lean body, with a small head and long legs. Its non-retractable claws give it a strong grip on the ground. Its body is about four feet long, not including its tail, which can reach three feet. When running at high speed, the long tail assists balance changing direction. Cheetahs stand over three feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 75 to 125 pounds. Males are larger than females. The cheetah's top speed ranges from 55 to 70 miles per hour, but only for a maximum of 400 yards. Its face is marked with dark lines that run from the inside corners of its eyes to the outside corners of its mouth, while its coat is yellowish-gray with pale black spots. Its canine teeth are small relative to those in other felids, a reduction in the size of the roots of the upper canines that allows a larger nasal aperture for increased air intake that is critical for allowing the cheetah to recover from its sprint while it suffocates its prey.

Range: Cheetahs are most abundant in east and southern Africa, with a large population in the farmlands south of the Etosha region of Namibia and in the Serengeti ecosystem of Kenya and Tanzania. Lower numbers still occur in parts of sub-Saharan Africa but burgeoning human populations have heavily degraded their habitat. A remnant population is also found in Iran adjoining parts of Pakistan, and possibly, in Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

Habitat: Cheetahs are adapted for life on grassy plains or savannas but also make extensive use of bush, scrub and open woodlands. Observations suggest they expend more energy hunting in open country than in cover. Unlike other felids, they hunt primarily during the day.

Diet: Cheetahs mainly prey on gazelles and small antelopes that they bring down after a specta-cular, high-speed chase. They also feed on larger antelopes or hares when gazelles are scarce. In southern Africa cheetahs also prey on calves and other small domestic livestock, and in Iran and northern Africa, young camels are also targeted. Because of their relatively small size in comparison to other large predators in Africa, cheetahs commonly lose 50% of their prey to lions, hyaenas and leopards. Cheetahs are well adapted to living in arid environments and are not obligate drinkers. They appear able to satisfy their moisture requirements from their prey�s blood and urine or by eating tsama melons.

Social Organization: Cheetahs are usually solitary hunters that come together only to breed. Males, related or unrelated, may form lifelong coalitions of two or three individuals. In areas where more powerful predators have been eradicated, groups as large 10�14 animals (including cubs) have been reported. Females usually have two to six cubs after a gestation of 89-93 days. The young become independent in two years. While young, cubs have a long, silver mane that may help them resemble the ratel, an aggressive member of the mustelid family, which has few enemies due to its ferocious nature. Because other carnivores - lions, hyaenas, and leopards - commonly prey upon young, their large litter size may help compensate for infant loss through predation. Female cheetahs maintain a home range that is several times larger than of males.

Threats to Survival: The primary threat to cheetahs is loss of habitat due to human settlement and agriculture. They are also persecuted as livestock predators and in the past, for zoos and the pet trade as well as killed for pelts. Disease surveillance in the cheetah is paramount. In the 1980's an outbreak of Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) occurred in captive cheetahs. In 1995 a workshop on Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), Cheetah Immunodeficiency Virus and Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) in the cheetah was held to develop guidelines for monitoring these diseases. Male cheetahs also have an unusually high level of deformed sperm cells, a factor that may be related to lack of genetic variation. In North Africa and Iran, severe depletion of the prey base has brought cheetahs to near extinction.

Prehistory: Cheetahs are thought to have originated in Africa during the Miocene epoch (26 million to 7.5 million years ago), migrating to Asia shortly thereafter. This would have been during the same time period that gazelles evolved. True cheetahs appeared in the form of Acinonyx pardinensis during the Pliocene epoch (7.5 to 3.75 million years ago) but were much larger (to 200 lb.) than living cheetahs. Their remains have been found in Europe, India and China. A more recent but slightly smaller cheetah, Acinonyx intermedius, evolved during the mid-Pleistocene period (3.8 to 1.9 million years ago) and extended its range into China. Living cheetahs, Acinonyx jubatus, became extinct in eastern Asia at the end of the Ice Age, giving way to other felid predators. In Africa, the earliest cheetah fossil is from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and dates to the lower Pleistocene epoch. During the late Pleistocene epoch of North America, 100,000 years ago, two species of cheetah, Miracinonyx studeri and Miracinonyx trumani, existed. Both shared similar morphological features with living cheetahs, including facial shortening and nasal expansion in order to facilitate the enlargement of respiratory passages to support oxygen uptake and distribution while running. Their presence on the American prairies is considered the primary reason living pronghorn �antelope� are so fast, there being no living predator that can match them in speed. Yet another extinct cheetah, Miracinonyx inexpectatus, from the early Pleistocene of North America (1 to 1.5 millions years BP) is thought to be closely related to the puma. Its body proportions are intermediate between those of a puma and those of living cheetahs, Acinonyx. The lower limbs of this cat were not as elongated and the claws were fully retractable. Based on skeletal features, Miracinonyx inexpectatus is thought to have been faster running than the puma but stronger and better equipped for climbing than Acinonyx.

History in Zoos: Cheetahs were kept by humans at least as early as 3000 BC. They were kept as hunting animals by wealthy Sumerians in Babylon (Iran). Later, the Mongol emperor, Akbar, The Great, kept 1,000 cheetahs for hunting in 1300 AD, all of which were acquired from the wild as adults. During the first 4,000 years that cheetahs have been kept by humans, there was only one recorded birth: in the 17th century cheetahs kept by the Moghul Emperor, Akbar, in India, unexpectedly mated and produced young. The earliest record of a cheetah exhibited in a zoo is in 1829 at the Zoological Society of London but the animal did not live to reach one year of age. Cheetahs were first exhibited in North America in 1871 at Central Park Zoo, NY. By 1954, 139 cheetahs were exhibited in 47 facilities in Europe and North America but most did not live more than one year and there were no captive births. Between 1955 and 1994, 1,440 cheetahs were imported to zoological institutions worldwide from the wild. In 1956, the first captive birth took place at the Philadelphia Zoo. The pair produced another litter two years later. Since then captive breeding has increased the founder population to 116 animals, the onset of CITES preventing frequent international trade from the wild. Approximately 90% of the captive cheetah population is descendent from populations in Namibia.

Zoo Programs -- SSP: While cheetahs are easily tamed and have been kept in captivity for thousands of years, they are difficult to breed and are susceptible to many diseases. Research is being performed on their reproductive behavior. Studies in eastern and southern Africa have found that the extant species of cheetah has very little genetic diversity because they seemed to have survived the massive Pleistocene extinction that affected other genera of cheetahs in other regions by surviving a genetic bottleneck some 10,000 years ago. Despite these obstacles, there are now over 300 cheetahs in the SSP program. Blood tests of the population are being used to determine which individuals may be carrying the highly fatal FIP disease. Nutritional, behavioral and reproductive evaluations of all SSP cheetahs have been done as well. The results of this work were documented in a special issue of Zoo Biology in 1993. To date (7/99) ten litters of cubs have been produced using assisted reproductive technology (artificial insemination). In November 1995, the first litter of cheetah cubs conceived by the use of frozen semen was produced in North America with germplasm collected in Namibia from a free-ranging cheetah.

Conservation: Cheetahs have worldwide legal protection. However, in many national parks and reserves, they are persecuted by stronger predators. Outside protected areas they are killed by livestock owners because of predation. In February 1996, a Population Habitat Viability Analysis (PHVA) was held in Namibia which brought together all the stake-holders in cheetah conservation to address various concerns. This workshop assessed the threats to wild cheetahs in Namibia and identified steps needed for their long-term survival. The Cheetah Conservation Fund is working closely with farmers to minimize livestock losses to cheetahs and reduce killing.

Education: Almost all zoos holding cheetahs have some form of public education program about this species. The SSP is working on developing an educational/informational brochure. The Namibian-based Cheetah Conservation Fund is working to educate ranchers and children on the importance of cheetahs in their countries.

Dedicated Fund: A dedicated fund has been established at the Columbus Zoo to support cheetah conservation programs. Contributions may be sent to: Cheetah SSP dedicated Fund, c/o Columbus Zoo, 9990 Riverside Drive, Powell, OH 43065.


North American SSP Coordinator:
    Jack Grisham
    Director of Animal Collections
    Saint Louis Zoological Park
    One Government Drive
    Saint Louis, MO 63110
    tel: 314-781-0900, ext. 229

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