CHEETAH : The fastest land animal

Cheetah_family_Wallpaper__yvt2The cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) inhabit most of Africa and parts of the Middle East. It is the only existing member of the genus Acinonyx. This spotted cat is not only the fastest running land animal, but also has the ability to accelerate from 0 to over 100 km/h (62 mph) in just three seconds. The animal reaches 112 to 120 km/h (70 and 75 mph) in short bursts covering distances up to 500 m (1,600 ft).

These cats were formerly considered to be primitive among felines and were believed to have evolved around 18 million (1.8 crore) years ago. Recent research, however, suggests the last common ancestor of all 40 existing species of felines existed more recently than that — about 11 million (1.1 crore) years ago. The same research suggests the cheetah, while highly derived morphologically, is not of ancient lineage, having branched out from its closest living relatives (Puma concolor, the cougar, and Puma yaguarondi, the jaguarundi) around five million (50 lakh) years ago. These felids have not changed significantly since they first appeared in the fossil record.

The word “cheetah” is derived from the Sanskrit word chitrakayah, meaning “variegated”, in Hindi it became cheeta. The genus name, Acinonyx, means “no-move-claw” in Greek, while the species name, jubatus, means “maned” in Latin, a reference to the mane found in cheetah cubs.

Cheetahs have low genetic changeability

Cheetahs have unusually low genetic changeability. They also have a very low sperm count, motility, and deformed flagella. It is believed that the species went through a long-lasting period of inbreeding following a genetic bottleneck during the last ice age. This indicates that the genetic monomorphism did not stop the cheetah from flourishing across two continents for thousands of years.

Scientific evidences suggest that the cheetahs possibly evolved in Africa during the Miocene epoch (26 million to 7.5 million years ago) and later migrated to Asia. Recent research indicates the last common ancestor of all existing populations as living in Asia 11 million (1.10 crore) years ago. This may lead to revision and modification in existing ideas about the evolution of cheetah.

The extinct species include: Acinonyx pardinensis (Pliocene epoch), found in India, China and Europe, it was a lot larger than modern cheetah; Acinonyx intermedius (mid-Pleistocene period), found over the same range. The extinct genus Miracinonyx was exceptionally cheetah-like. Recent DNA analysis has revealed that Miracinonyx inexpectatus, Miracinonyx studeri, and Miracinonyx trumani (early to late Pleistocene epoch), which existed in North America and called the “North American cheetah” were not true cheetahs. They were close relatives of cougar.

Cheetah cubs have high mortality rate due to many factors including predation by other carnivores, such as hyenas and lions and possibly genetic factors. It has been suggested that the low genetic diversity is a cause of bent limbs, poor sperm quality, birth defects, cramped teeth and curled tails. Some biologists believe that they are too inbred to flourish as a species. Other group of experts is of the view that if cheetah lost most of its genetic diversity thousands of years ago, but its decline came to light in the last century or so, this means that factors other than genetics are mainly responsible.

Cheetahs ‘sprinting’ towards extinction

Cheetahs are “sprinting” to extinction due to habitat loss and other forms of human impact, according to a new study out in December 2016, which called for urgent action to save the world’s fasted land animals. 

Cheetah numbers in Zimbabwe have plunged by more than 85 percent in 16 years and fewer than 50 individuals survive in Iran, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) warned. “The cheetah is sprinting towards the edge of extinction and could soon be lost forever unless urgent, landscape-wide conservation action is taken,” ZSL said in a statement. 

The report’s authors said cheetahs should be listed as “Endangered” instead of “Vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. 

The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimated that just 7,100 cheetahs remain in the wild, occupying just 9 percent of the territory they once lived in. At the beginning of the 20th century there were an estimated 100,000 cheetahs, according to previous estimates. 

“Given the secretive nature of this elusive cat, it has been difficult to gather hard information on the species, leading to its plight being overlooked,” said Sarah Durant, the report’s lead author and project leader for the Rangewide Conservation Programme for Cheetah and African Wild Dog. 

“Our findings show that the large space requirements for cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, meant that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought,” she said. Cheetahs travel widely in search of prey with some home ranges estimated at up to 3,000 square kilometres (1,158 square miles).

The study found that 77 per cent of the animal’s remaining habitat falls outside protected areas, leaving it especially vulnerable to human interference. The main risks are humans hunting their prey, habitat loss, illegal trafficking of cheetah parts and the exotic pet trade, according to the study

Subspecies

Even though many sources list six or more subspecies of the spotted cat, the taxonomic status of most of them is unresolved. The king cheetah Acinonyx rex was discarded as a subspecies after it was found that the variation was due to a single recessive gene. The subspecies Acinonyx jubatus guttatus, also known as woolly cheetah, may also have been a variation due to a recessive gene.

Some of the most commonly recognized subspecies include:
  • Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus): Asia (Afghanistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia)
  • Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki): Northwest Africa (Egypt, Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Djibouti, Tunisia, Niger and Morocco) and western Africa (Ghana, Mauritania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali and Niger)
  • Acinonyx jubatus raineyii: eastern Africa (Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Somalia)
  • Acinonyx jubatus jubatus: southern Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia)
  • Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii: central Africa (Sudan, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Central African Republic and Ethiopia)
  • Acinonyx jubatus velox

Physical Characteristics

Cheetahs have deep chest and narrow waist. Their coarse, short fur is tan with solid, round, polka-type black spots measuring 2 to 3 cm (0.79 to 1.2 in) across. These spots are not “rosettes” like the jaguars and leopards have. This provides them some camouflage while hunting. These cats have no spots on their white underside, but the tail, which usually ends in a bushy white tuft, does have spots that merge to form four to six dark rings at the end. Cheetahs have a small head with high-set eyes. These felines have black “tear marks” that run from the corner of their both eyes down the sides of the nose to their mouth. It keeps sunlight out of its eyes and aid in hunting and seeing long distances. Although the animal can attain a high speed while running, its body cannot afford to run for longer period. It is more suited for short bursts of speed.

Weighing from 35 to 72 kg (77 to 160 lb), the total head-and-body length of an adult animal is from 110 to 150 cm (43 to 59 in), while the tail can measure 60 to 84 cm (24 to 33 in) in length. Cheetahs are 70 to 95 cm tall at the shoulder. Males tend to be slightly larger than females and have slightly bigger heads, but there is not much variation between the two sexes. It is difficult to tell males and females apart by appearance alone. If compared with the similar size leopard, cheetah is usually shorter-bodied, but with longer tail and taller so it appears more streamlined.

Same gene for Cheetah and Tabby cat

The gene that produces striking dark stripes on tabby cats (any cat with distinctive coat that features stripes, dots, lines or swirling patterns, usually together with a mark resembling an “M” on its forehead) is also responsible for the spots on cheetahs, a new study has found (2012). Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, the National Cancer Institute and Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, found that the two felines share a biological mechanism responsible for both the elegant stripes on the tabby cat and the cheetah’s normally dappled coat. Dramatic changes to the normal patterns occur when this pathway is disturbed — the resulting house cat has swirled patches of color rather than orderly stripes, and the normally spotted cheetah sports thick, dark lines down its back.

Why cheetahs can run so fast

It is one of the only felids with semi-retractable claws (known only in three other cat species: the Iriomote cat, fishing cat and the flat-headed cat) offering extra ground-grip in its high-speed pursuits which can reach 112 to 120 km/h (70 and 75 mph) in short bursts. At the same time they lack the claw-grip which other cats have while seizing the prey. This also makes cheetahs unable to climb trees like many felids, although they are capable of reaching easily accessible branches.

The ligament structure of cheetah’s claws is the same as those of other cats, but the difference is that it simply lacks the sheath or covering of skin and fur found in other varieties; consequently the claws are always visible, with the exception of the dewclaw, which is commonly referred to as Dog’s thumb. The dewclaw itself is much shorter and straighter than that of other cats. This is a vestigial digit on the foot of many mammals, reptiles and birds. It commonly grows high on the leg so that in digitigrade species, when the animal is standing, it does not make contact with the ground. Dewclaw is best known in dogs.

Adaptations that enable cheetah to run fast include large nostrils that allow for increased oxygen intake, and a larger than normal heart and lungs that work together to circulate oxygen efficiently. During the chase, cheetah’s respiratory rate increases from 60 to 150 breaths per minute. While sprinting, in addition to having good traction due to its semi-retractable claws, the animal uses its tail as a rudder to maintain the balance of the body and to allow it to make sharp turns, necessary to outflank prey animals that often make such turns to escape.

Cheetah “a rear-wheel-drive car”

Besides the above facts Japanese Researchers have recently (2012) discovered that the cheetah, known to accelerate to record-breaking speeds, gets its special propulsion power from muscles in its hind limb. Scientists have mapped the distribution of muscle fibre across the whole of the animal’s body for the first time and found that a sprinting cheetah is like “a rear-wheel-drive car”.

By comparing the muscles of cheetah with those of a domestic cat and dog, the team identified the propulsion power of its hind limb muscles. The findings are published in the journal ‘Mammalian Biology’.

Dr Naomi Wada, the study’s co-author and professor in system physiology at Yamaguchi University in Japan, said, that different types of muscle fibre are suited to different activities. In all the animals studied, so-called Type 1 fibres produced a small force output but were resistant to fatigue, making them best suited to maintaining posture and slow walking.

Type 2a fibre is best suited for fast walking and trotting whereas Type 2x or “fast” fibres created a high force output but had low endurance and were key to fast running or galloping. “The forelimb muscles in the cheetah included [the] most Type 1 muscle fibres of all three animals… while the muscles of hind limbs have many Type 2x fibres,” says Wada.

“The functional difference between forelimb and hind limb is the most remarkable in cheetahs,” says Wada.

The conclusion of the research suggested that the power comes from the cheetah’s hind legs, in the same way as a rear wheel-drive car. The digits of the cheetah’s hind limbs contained no fast fibres, but the digits on the front legs contained many of them. This is because the animal controls its balance by using its forefeet to turn and slow down, Wada says.

With long, flexible limbs, a sprinting cheetah spends more than half its time airborne. In order to maximise this effect, it arches and contracts its spine, and Wada and colleagues found muscle fibres that supported this technique. The cat had a high percentage of fast fibres running along its back and middle, suggesting that it could produce a quick, strong extension of the backbone.

World’s fastest cheetah breaks own speed record

The fastest cheetah on Earth has broken her previous world record for the 100-metre dash in August 2012, setting a new best time of 5.95 seconds. The feat surpassed the fastest of all human 100m racers by almost four seconds. Usain Bolt of Jamaica holds the human world record at 9.58 seconds in the 100m dash. Cheetahs, of course, are built to run faster than humans, regularly clocking speeds of up to around 60 miles per hour. During a photo shoot with National Geographic Magazine, Sarah, a cheetah from the Cincinnati Zoo, covered 100 metres at 61 mph. The sprint broke her previous world record, set in 2009 when she ran the same distance in 6.13 seconds – breaking the previous record that was set in 2001, when a male S African cheetah named Nyana ran 100 metres in 6.19 seconds.

Cheetahs are not among ‘Big cats’

Despite being large in size cheetahs are not the member of ‘Big cats’ club that includes only tigers, lions, jaguars and leopards. Reason is unlike true ‘big cats’ of subfamily Pantherinae, cheetahs cannot roar; they can purr as they inhale. On the contrary, the big cats can roar but cannot purr, except while exhaling. Despite this the animal is still considered by some to be the smallest of the big cats.

Cheetah is a vulnerable species. Of all the larger cats, it is the least able to adapt to new environments. Perhaps due to this reason it has always proved difficult to breed in captivity, although a few zoos have managed to succeed at this recently. There was a time when cheetahs were widely hunted for their fur; today they suffer more from the loss of both habitat and prey.

Morphs and variations

King cheetah

King cheetah (CC BY 2.0)Some cheetahs have an unusual fur pattern mutation of larger, blotchy, merged spots. Such animals are known as “king cheetahs”; they were once thought to constitute a separate subspecies but are in fact African cheetahs. Their rare fur pattern is due to a single recessive gene. This kind of animal has been rarely seen in the wild, but are bred in captivity.

King Cheetah was first seen in what was then Southern Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) in 1926. Next year in 1927, Reginald Innes Pocock, a naturalist, declared it a separate species, but reversed the decision in 1939 in the absence of evidence. In 1928, a skin procured by Walter Rothschild was found to be intermediate in pattern between the king cheetah and spotted cheetah and Abel Chapman considered it to be a colour form of the spotted cheetah. This kind of Twenty-two skins were found between 1926 and 1974. Since 1927, the king cheetah was reported five more times in the wild. Although strangely marked skins had come from Africa, a live animal was not photographed until 1974 in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Paul and Lena Bottriell, Cryptozoologists, photographed one during an expedition in 1975. They also managed to acquire stuffed specimens. It appeared larger than a spotted cheetah and its fur had a different texture. There was another wild sighting in 1986 — the first in seven years. By 1987, thirty-eight specimens had been recorded, many from pelts.

The doubts about species status were resolved in 1981 when king cheetahs were born at the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre in South Africa. In May 1981, two normally spotted sisters gave birth in the centre and each litter had one king cheetah. Both the sisters had mated with a wild-caught male from the Transvaal area (king cheetahs were recorded from this area). These animals have been known to exist in Botswana, Zimbabwe and in the northern part of Transvaal province in South Africa. A recessive gene must be inherited from both parents for this pattern to appear, which is one reason why it is so rare.

Other colour variants

Other unusual colour morphs of the species include gray, speckles, albinism and melanistic coloration. Most have been reported in Indian cheetahs, particularly in captive specimens kept for hunting.

The Mughal Emperor of India, Jahangir (full title: Al-Sultan al-‘Azam wal Khaqan al-Mukarram, Khushru-i-Giti Panah, Abu’l-Fath Nur-ud-din Muhammad Jahangir Padshah Ghazi), who ruled from 1605 until his death on 8 November 1627, recorded having a white cheetah presented to him in 1608. In the memories of Tuzk-e-Jahangiri, the Emperor, says that in the third year of his reign, Raja Bir Singh Deo brought a white cheetah to show me. Although other sorts of creatures, both birds and beasts have white varieties …. I had never seen a white cheetah. Its spots, which are (usually) black, were of a blue colour, and the whiteness of the body also inclined to blueishness. This indicates a chinchilla mutation that restricts the amount of pigmentation on the hair shaft. Although the spots were formed of black pigment, the less dense pigmentation gives a hazy, greyish effect. As well as Jahangir’s white cheetah at Agra (place known for the world famous monument the Taj Mahal), a report of “incipient albinism” has come from Beaufort West according to Guggisberg.

H. F. Stoneham reported about a melanistic cheetah (black with ghost markings) in the Trans-Nzoia District of Kenya in 1925 in a letter to “Nature in East Africa”. Vesey Fitzgerald saw a melanistic cheetah in Zambia along with a normal spotted one.

Red (erythristic) cheetahs have been found with dark tawny spots on a golden background. Cream (isabelline) cheetahs have pale red spots on a pale background. Some of these cats found in the desert region are unusually pale; possibly they are better-camouflaged and therefore better hunters and more likely to breed and pass on their paler coloration. Blue (Maltese or grey) cheetahs have been described as white with grey-blue spots (chinchilla) or pale grey cheetahs with darker grey spots (Maltese mutation). In one case a cheetah with hardly any spots was shot in Tanzania in 1921 (Pocock); it had a few spots on the neck and back, and they too were unusually small.

Habitat and range

Geographically there are numerous isolated populations of this animal. All of them are found in south-western Asia or Africa. A small population survives in Iran’s Khorasan Province, where conservationists are taking steps to protect them. There have also been several unconfirmed reports of Asiatic Cheetahs in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, with at least one dead animal discovered some time back.

Cheetah_range (public domain)Cheetahs prosper in areas with vast stretches of land where prey is plentiful. They like to live in an open biotope, such as semi-desert, prairie, and thick brush, though it can be found in a variety of habitats. In Namibia, for example, it lives in savannahs, mountainous terrain, grasslands and areas of dense vegetation.

In much of their former range, these cats were tamed by aristocrats and used to hunt antelopes in the same way as is still done with members of the greyhound group of dogs.

Reproduction and behavior

Females take twenty to twenty-four months to reach maturity, while males take around twelve months, though they usually do not mate until at least three years old. Mating occurs throughout the year. A study done in the Serengeti revealed females are sexually promiscuous and often have cubs by many different males.

Cheetahs have gestation period of ninety to ninety-eight days and the average litter size is three to five cubs, but it can reach up to nine. At birth cubs weigh between 155 to 300 g. Unlike some other spotted cats, cheetah cubs are born with characteristic spots. They also have a downy underlying fur on their necks, called a mantle, extending to mid-back. This gives them a mane or Mohawk-type appearance, but it is shed as the cubs grow older. Some people hypothesize that these mane-like fur gives cheetah cubs the appearance of a honey badger (ratel) and is used to scare away potential aggressors. Cubs leave their mother between 13 and 20 months after birth. Life span of these cats is up to twelve years in the wild and up to twenty years in captivity.

Cheetahs have a unique, well-structured social order. Females usually lead a solitary life and tend to avoid each other, though some mother/daughter pairs have been known to be formed for small periods. Females come in contact with the males during mating period, but raise their cubs on their own. First eighteen months of a cub’s life are very crucial; they must learn many lessons, because their survival depends on knowing how to hunt and avoid other predators. When cubs are 18 months old mother leaves them, who then form a sibling (“sib”) group that stays together for another six months. At about two years, the female siblings leave the group, and the young males remain together.

Territories

Females

Cheetah (pulic domain)Unlike male cheetahs and other felines, females do not set up territories. The area they live in is termed as home range, which overlaps with other females’ home ranges. They are often those of their mothers, daughters or sisters. Females always hunt alone. Cubs accompany their mothers to learn the art of hunting once they reach the age of five to six weeks.

The size of home range depends wholly on the availability of prey. For instance, cheetahs inhabiting southern African woodlands have ranges as small as 34 km2 (13 sq miles), while in some parts of Namibia home ranges can reach 1,500 km2 (580 sq miles).

Males

Male cheetahs are usually social and may band together for life, generally with their brothers in the same litter; in case where a cub is the only male in the litter then two or three single males may group together, or a lone male may join an existing group. These formations are called coalitions. In a study conducted in Serengeti it was found that 41 per cent of the adult males were solitary, 40 per cent were living in pairs and 19 per cent lived in trios.

Coalitions help in obtaining a territory as compared to a lone male. Studies have shown that coalitions keep their territories just as long as lone males — between four and four and a half years.

Males are territorial and defend their territories. While females’ home ranges can be very large and a territory including several females’ ranges is impossible to defend. On the other hand, males choose the points at which several of the females’ home ranges overlap, creating a much smaller space, which can be properly defended against intruders while maximizing the chance of reproduction at the same time. Coalitions will try their best to maintain their territories and to find females with whom they will mate. The size of the territory usually depends on the availability of resources; depending on the part of Africa, the size of any male’s territory can vary greatly from 37 to 170 km2.

Marking of territory is done by males by urinating on objects that stand out, such as big stone, trees, termite mounds and logs etc. The whole coalition contributes to the scent. Males will attempt to kill any intruders, and fights often result in serious injury or death.

Vocalizations

Cheetahs cannot roar, but they have following vocalizations:-

  • Stuttering or Churring: Emitted by cheetahs during social meetings. A ‘churr’ can be seen as an expression of interest, invitation to other cheetahs, uncertainty, or appeasement or during meetings with the opposite sex (although each sex churrs for different reasons).
  • Purring: This vocalization is made when the animal is satisfied, usually during enjoyable social meetings (mainly between mothers and their cubs). A feature of purring is that it is realized on both aggressive and ingressive airstream.
  • Chirping: When any cheetah attempts to locate another or a mother tries to find her cubs, it uses a high-pitched barking called chirping. The chirps made by the cubs sound more like a bird chirping, and so are termed chirping.
  • Growling: This is often accompanied by hissing and spitting and is exhibited by the animal while facing danger or during annoyance.
  • Yowling: This is a heightened version of growling, typically displayed when danger becomes really bad.

Hunting and Diet

Like all the cats, cheetah is also a carnivore. Its diet consists mainly of mammals under 40 kg (88 lb), including the Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle, impala and the springboks. When large prey is not available small animals like Guineafowl and hares are also preyed upon. The young of larger mammals such as zebras and wildebeests are taken at times, and adults too, when these cats hunt in groups. While other large cats often hunt by night, cheetahs hunt during day. It hunts ordinarily either early in the morning or later in the evening when it is not so hot, but there is still enough light.

Like many other cats cheetahs too hunt by vision rather than by scent. They stalk the prey and reach within 15–30 m, then suddenly burst out and chase the prey. From the start of running to the end it usually takes about a minute, and if cheetah fails to make a catch during this period it gives up. These cats have an average hunting success rate of around 50 per cent.

Running at speed of 112 to 120 km/h (70 and 75 mph) puts a great deal of strain on the animal’s body. While sprinting, its body temperature rises considerably. If the chase is hard, cheetah needs to rest for half an hour or more.

Cheetah is not powerful enough to break the neck of its four-legged prey the way big cats do, so it kills by tripping the prey during chase and then biting it on the underside of the throat to suffocate it; the bite also punctures vital arteries in the neck. Once the animal is dead cheetah proceeds to devour it as quickly as possible before the kill is taken by stronger predators.

The selection of prey species depends upon the area in which cheetah lives. For instance, on the East African plains, it usually goes for Thomson’s gazelle, which is shorter than cheetah and also doesn’t match its speed. This antelope has a top speed of up to 80 km/h (50 mph). Both the above factors make it an appropriate prey for the champion of the speed. While hunting, these cats look for individuals which have strayed some distance from their group. They do not necessarily seek out old or weak ones.

A vulnerable predator

Despite the hunting prowess and great speed, cheetahs are by and large outranked by larger predators in most of their range. Since they have evolved for short bursts of tremendous speed at the cost of their power, they are unable to defend themselves against most of the other predatory species. Consequently, they generally avoid fighting and surrender their kill immediately to even a single hyena, rather than risking any injury. As cheetahs depend on their speed to get their meals, any injury that slows them down could be life threatening.

Since cheetahs are not very strong against the other predators they have 50 per cent chance of losing their kill to the adversaries. To avoid competition even in hunting they hunt at different times of the day and once the kill is made they try to consume it as soon as possible. Due to the loss of habitat in Africa, cheetahs are facing greater pressure from other native predators.

The rate of mortality during the early weeks of life is very high in cheetahs; as high as up to 90 per cent of the cubs are killed during this time by wild dogs, leopards, lions, hyenas and even by eagles. To avoid these animals cubs often hide in thick brush for safety. Like all mothers, cheetah females too defend their young fiercely and are at times successful in driving predators away. Often groups of male cheetahs also chase away other predators, depending on the size of the group and the size and number of predator.

Cheetahs and humans

Economic importance

There was a time when cheetah fur was regarded as a status symbol and for that they were killed by the people. Today, they have an increasing economic importance for wildlife and eco-tourism and as zoo animal. Since cheetahs are far less aggressive than other larger cats and can be tamed, their cubs are sometimes illegally sold as pets.Cheetah_with_Two_Indian_Attendants_and_a_Stag. Oil on canvas (George_Stubbs_(1724-1806)

Like other big cats cheetahs too often come into conflict with human beings. There are cases where they are hunted just because many farmers believe that they eat livestock. Numerous campaigns have been launched to educate farmers and encourage them to conserve cheetahs as the recent evidences have shown that they do not usually attack and eat livestock as they prefer the wild prey.

Taming

Ancient Egyptians used to keep cheetahs as pets. They, however, tamed and trained them for the purpose of hunting, but did not domesticate (bred under human control) them. While on hunting expedition, cheetahs would be taken along in low-sided carts or by horseback, hooded and blindfolded, and kept on leashes while dogs flushed out the prey. When the prey was close enough, cheetahs would be unleashed and their blindfolds removed. This tradition was passed on to the ancient Persians and later it reached India, where it was continued by the Indian princes till the twentieth century. Cheetahs continued to be associated with royalty and elegance, their use as pets spreading just as their hunting skills were. The notable princes and kings, who kept these cats as pets, include Akbar the Great, ruler of the Mughal Empire in India from 1556 to 1605. He had as many as 1000 cheetahs as pets. Genghis Khan and Charlemagne too had cheetahs as pets. As recently as the 1930s the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was often photographed leading a cheetah by a leash.

Conservation

Cheetahs are placed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of vulnerable species, which says African subspecies is ‘threatened’ and Asiatic subspecies is in ‘critical situation’. It is also covered under the US Endangered Species Act: threatened species – Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). According to estimates, roughly 12,400 animals are in the wild in twenty-five countries of Africa; Namibia has the largest number, with about 2,500 animals. About fifty to sixty critically endangered Asiatic cheetahs are believed to be living in Iran. There have been successful breeding programs, including the use of in vitro fertilisation, in zoos around the world.

The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), started in Namibia in1990, is working with a mission to be the world’s resource in the field of conservation and protection of cheetahs and ensuring their future. The CCF works with all stakeholders within the cheetah’s ecosystem to develop best practices in education, research and ecology and to create a sustainable model to benefit all other species, including the humans.

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