Interesting Facts About Cheetah For Kids
The fastest land animal, the only animal that can turn in mid-air, one of the big cats that can’t roar — read on for more such interesting facts about cheetahs.
By Sahana Charan
Cheetahs have mesmerised generations, are often associated with royalty and are a part of ancient folklore in Africa and Asia. The word ‘cheetah’ has its origin in the Sanskrit word chitraka/citraka, which means patterned or speckled.
While many are oblivious to the magnificent animal’s dwindling numbers, others confuse the leopard with the cheetah, even though the two cats are quite distinct in their features.
My discussion with some college students on wildlife conservation a few years ago brought out a surprising fact — many of them did not know that there were no more cheetahs in the wild in India.
Wouldn’t it be nice to expand your children’s knowledge about wildlife protection and tell them some more amazing facts like this about cheetahs?
The cheetah family
- The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a carnivorous animal that belongs to the Felidae (cat) family.
- It is related closely to the puma. Both the cheetah and the puma (along with a few other cats) are a part of the Felinae subfamily, which comprises cats that cannot roar.
- The beautiful big cat is also the fastest land animal in the world.
Based on the region that they are found in, cheetahs have been categorised into five subspecies:
1. South African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus):
- Among all the cheetah subspecies, the largest population is that of the South African cheetah, numbering about 1,200–1,700.
- It mostly lives in the grasslands, savannahs and dry areas of the Transvaal Province and the Kalahari Desert.
- The South African cheetah has a distinct, bright yellow coat and big black spots.
- The King Cheetah is a rare genetic variation of the South African subspecies. It has a fur pattern that is different from that of the normal cheetah.
- Despite their numbers, these cheetahs also face threat from man as they sometimes venture into farmlands in Namibia.
2. East African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus raineyi):
- This cheetah is larger than the other subspecies. An adult East African cheetah can measure up to 130 cm from head to toe.
- The colour of its coat is slightly lighter compared to the Southern African cheetah.
- A distinct feature of this subspecies is that the black spots on the body merge towards the tail to form black rings.
- Found mostly in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, the East African cheetah’s habitat includes grasslands and the savannahs of the region.
3. Northeast African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii):
- This subspecies is quite similar in appearance to the East African cheetah, apart from the fact that the black spots on their fur coat are smaller.
- The Northeast African cheetah lives in arid areas, deserts and savannahs.
4. Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki):
- Only about 200 cheetahs belonging to this subspecies remain in the wild. Their number is decreasing due to large-scale loss of habitat and man-animal conflict.
- These cheetahs are shorter compared to the other subspecies and the colour of their coat is also much lighter.
5. Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus):
- This subspecies is critically endangered because of poaching, loss of habitat, smuggling and man-animal conflict.
- Hundreds of years ago, the Asiatic cheetah roamed all over North Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India. But now, it is only found in eastern Iran.
- The Asiatic cheetah has longer legs but a smaller build compared to the African species. However, its coat is thicker than its African counterpart.
The Indian cheetah
- In India, the cheetahs were found in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Gujarat, some parts of Bengal and Tamil Nadu.
- The last authenticated sighting of the cheetah was in 1947 when the Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Surguja in Madhya Pradesh shot and killed three male cheetahs.
- The subspecies was declared extinct in 1952. Their extinction is attributed to large-scale hunting and poaching, smuggling to other parts of the world, man-animal conflict, and habitat and prey loss.
- According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Asiatic cheetah is currently found in Naybandan Wildlife Refuge, Bafgh Protected Area, Kavir National Park, Khar Touran National Park and Dar Anjir Wildlife Refuge in Iran.
In an article in the Down To Earth magazine, noted conservation biologist and one of the world’s leading experts on the cheetah, Dr Laurie Marker, explains that since land for wildlife is shrinking, species like the cheetah have to compete with other animals and humans for space. “Reintroducing cheetahs in India will help relieve pressure on the species by creating additional habitat, which the cheetah desperately needs to survive. It will also help increase the species’ genetic diversity.”
Physical features of the cheetah
- The cheetah has a small, round face; elongated, slender body and long, powerfully-built legs that help it take big strides.
- It has a yellowish-brown fur coat with black, round spots all over the body — a cheetah is supposed to have close to 2,000 spots on its body.
- A distinct physical feature of the cheetah is the presence of the two black lines extending from the corner of its eyes till the end of the mouth, called ‘tear lines’.
- The cheetah is a predatory animal and it is specially built to run at high speeds and catch its prey. It can run at a speed of up to 112 km per hour and also spin while running.
- The cheetah’s long tail helps it balance its body when running at high speeds.
- It also has thick pads on its feet. Unlike other members of the cat family, the cheetah can retract its claws only partially, which gives it extra grip while running.
- The cheetah lives in dry and arid areas, grasslands, savannah, deserts and areas with thick vegetation.
- While cheetahs are solitary animals and hunt on their own, male cheetahs may sometimes live and hunt together in a coalition of four to six members.
- A cheetah marks its territory by urinating or rubbing its cheeks and chin on spots it considers landmarks in its territory. However, a cheetah would share its territory with members of its own coalition.
Hunting habits of the cheetah
- The cheetah’s flexible spine and long, muscular legs are built to run fast. So, instead of stalking their prey like lions or tigers, cheetahs run behind the prey and catch them by their neck or head.
- The animals that a cheetah preys upon include gazelles, springboks, impalas, wildebeest calves, and even rabbits and birds.
- Cheetahs are the most timid of all big cats. They find it difficult to compete with lions, leopards and hyenas for food. That is why cheetahs hunt early in the morning or afternoon while other predators prefer to hunt at night.
Cheetah dad and mom
- The male cheetah stays with the female only for a brief period after mating. So, the cheetah dad is not around to raise his young ones.
- After a gestation period of about 90 days, the female gives birth to 5–6 cubs. The cheetah mom raises her young ones single-handed, as the female cheetah is a solitary animal.
- Cheetah cubs are vulnerable to diseases or fall victim to predators like lions and hyenas. Only about 70 per cent survive and reach adulthood.
- The mother cheetah feeds and guards her offspring while teaching them to run, hunt and catch prey.
- Once the cubs are around 18 months old, they leave their mother and stay with their siblings for the next few months, before venturing out on their own.
- It is only after many unsuccessful attempts at catching prey that young cheetahs become skilled hunters. By this time, they are two to three years old.
- In the wild, cubs that survive and grow into adults usually have a lifespan of around 14 years, whereas in captivity, a cheetah may live up to 20 years.
How cheetahs communicate
- The cheetah belongs to the subfamily of big cats that cannot roar. Instead, they communicate by purring, growling, chirping and whining.
- When a cheetah is feeling happy, it might purr; when it is frightened or angry, it may growl or hiss; and when communicating with its young ones, the mother would usually make a chirping sound.
Declining cheetah population
- A study, ‘The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation’, was published in 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The findings stated, “In Asia, the decline of cheetah has been particularly precipitous. Cheetah have been extirpated from 98% of their historical range, and a critically endangered population of Asiatic cheetah Acinonyx jubatus venaticus survives only in Iran…The rest of the world’s cheetah occur in Africa, spread across 30 fragmented populations that are now restricted to only 13% of their historical distributional range.” Researchers involved in the study recommended that the cheetah’s status be changed from vulnerable to endangered in the IUCN Red List.
- The sad fact today is that there are only about 7,000 cheetahs living in the wild. Of these, only 50 are Asiatic cheetahs, which are found in eastern Iran. The rest of them are found in different regions of Africa.
Threats to the cheetah
- Sometimes, cheetahs are forced to roam in farmlands and enter agricultural areas in search of food because of habitat loss. When this happens, they face hostility from farmers who see these big cats as a threat to their livestock.
- One of the biggest threats that these vulnerable animals face is the illegal trade of cubs. Cheetah cubs are often smuggled to countries in the Middle East, where they are kept as pets.
In 1975, through the efforts of the IUCN, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was formulated and signed by 80 countries to protect wildlife and through this agreement, commercial international trade in cheetah was prohibited.
Saving the cheetah
- The Asiatic cheetah is one of the national animals of Iran.
- With the aim of raising awareness about the dwindling numbers of the Asiatic cheetah and the need for their conservation, members of Iran’s national football team sported jerseys with the image of the animal at the FIFA World Cup 2014.
- The Iranian government uses the Asiatic cheetah as a national symbol in various events and activities to raise awareness and help in the conservation of the big cat.
- The Government has also launched programmes like the Cheetah Project in collaboration with the UNDP for the conservation of the cheetah.
- The Iranian government has also partnered with Panthera and the Wildlife Conservation Society to protect the big cat and its habitat.
Along with Iran, other countries are also involved in efforts to save the Cheetah. Here are some of the conventions for cheetah conservation:
- African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources
- Convention on Biological Diversity
- Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals
- Southern African Development Community Protocol on Wildlife Conservation and Law Enforcement
- Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage
In Africa, the Range Wide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dogs (RWCP) has chalked out an action plan and is doing all it can to prevent the decline in the cheetah population.
To involve everyone, December 4 is observed as International Cheetah Day to raise awareness about the plight of this animal and the need for its conservation.
Organisations working to protect and conserve the cheetah
- International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada
- African Wildlife Foundation
- Cheetah Conservation Foundation
- Cheetah Conservation Fund
- International Union for Conservation of Nature
- Wildlife Protection Society
- Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre
- Action for Cheetahs in Kenya
- Born Free Foundation
Why save the cheetah
According to wildlife conservationists, the cheetah helps maintain a healthy balance of the ecosystem, in the habitat that it lives in.
Here is what conservationist Laurie Marker says (Down to Earth): “The cheetah is one of the oldest of the big cat species and their ancestors can be traced back more than five million years to the Miocene era. The cheetah is also the world’s fastest land mammal, an icon of nature. With great speed and dexterity, the cheetah is known for being an excellent hunter, its kills feeding many other animals in its ecosystem — ensuring that multiple species survive.”
Books and movies about cheetahs
Cheetahs were revered in ancient Egypt. It was believed that an Egyptian cheetah goddess, Mafdet, helped in transporting the pharaoh’s soul to the other world after his death. Cheetahs were kept as pets by royalty and used for their pleasure to hunt antelopes, gazelles and other similar animals. So, this spotted beast has a special place in tradition and literature.
Some of the books about the cheetah are:
- Face to Face with Cheetahs (by Chris Johns and Elizabeth Carney)
- The Cheetah: Fast as Lightning (by Christine Denis-Huot)
- The Spotted Sphinx (by Joy Adamson)
- Tears of the Cheetah (by Stephen J O’Brien)
There are many films and documentaries that have a cheetah as the central character. The most popular among these include the 2005 film Duma and the 1989 film Cheetah.
The best way to raise awareness about the threat to cheetahs in the wild is to talk to children about it and involve them in the process of conservation. The cheetah is important to the environment and needs everyone’s efforts to ensure its survival.
About the author:
Written by Sahana Charan on 11 December 2019
Sahana Charan is an independent writer and journalist with an interest in writing about health and wellness, environment, urban living and child rights.
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