Cheetah Sasha at LIONSROCK

When is a cat not a so-called Big Cat?

In the world of big cat enthusiasts there is one 
debate that could really put the cat amongst the pigeons: Are cheetahs big cats?  


Note: Any advertisements that may appear during the viewing of this video are unrelated to FOUR PAWS. We assume no liability for this content.

This also often leads to different viewpoints when visitors to the FOUR PAWS LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary have a glimpse of the only cheetah at the sanctuary, Sasha.  

This male cheetah has gripped the imagination of many visitors and won the hearts of many South Africans after gaining fame as the fastest three-legged cheetah in South Africa. LIONSROCK became home to the cheetah after his leg was injured in an altercation with an antelope when he hunted the animal down.  

We asked cheetah researcher, Britt Klaassen, to settle this debate. She conducted intensive research on cheetahs and especially where these cats prefer to live. 

Those who held out for the supple cat with the specific tearlike markings on its face to be a big cat, lost this debate as Britt says cheetahs do not count as big cats

Cheetah Sasha at LIONSROCK

Cheetahs fall within their own genus: Acinonyx. They are closest related to the puma (Puma concolor) and the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi). These three species fall within the puma lineage.

Under the big cats however you can count five subspecies to the Panthera species. An overview shows (see illustration) the Panthera lineage (big cats such as lions, tigers, jaguars, snow-leopards and leopards,) and you can see that the puma lineage (including cheetahs) evolved much later. 

To Britt the cheetah is a remarkable cat as it is the only wild cat species that is both social as well as solitary.  

“Females are solitary unless with their cubs, while males can form coalitions. These coalitions are often formed between brothers. However, there was a very famous coalition of five males in the Maasai Mara, believed to have come from three different mothers.” 

There is another attribute that Britt points out as unique: “The speed they can reach is also specific to cheetahs. They can keep their heads still, focusing on their prey, while running over 100 kilometres per hour. This is due to their unique and highly specialised inner ear.”  

She explains that research by the American Museum of Natural History, shows over short distances, cheetahs can reach a maximum speed of 25.9 to 29 metres per second. The species usually hunts swift ungulates such as gazelles, antelopes, and impalas by chasing them at high speeds, knocking them over, and biting their throats until they suffocate.  

Given its lightly built body compared to other felids, the cheetah captures medium-sized prey, weighing only 23 to 56 kilograms on average, which limits the risk of injuries and provides enough time for the animal to eat before the arrival of lions, leopards and hyenas.  

Cheetah Sasha at LIONSROCK

Their hunting success is a combination of strategy as well as being at the right place. 

“Scientific research has shown that cheetahs have a higher success rate when they use a combination of more wooded areas and open plains. They can use the wooded areas to stalk their prey, without being noticed, and then use the open habitat to run after their prey at a high speed.” 

Britt conducted a research project in 2018 on cheetahs and their habitats. She says some researchers think that cheetahs avoid areas where threats of other carnivores are high. This means that they spend most of their time outside protected areas, where other carnivores’ densities are lower.  

“We found that cheetahs prefer the protected area where the densities of lions and hyenas are extremely high. In other words, they don’t necessarily avoid areas with other big cats, but try to hide when other predators are nearby. They prefer flight over fight unless the cheetah is a mother with small cubs.” 

Britt points out that cheetahs have sprint adaptations that makes them unique sprinters like a flexible spine, semi-retractable claws for extra grip, a supple build with long legs and a long tail to help with balance in short turns. The animal’s shoulder blade is also not attached to a collar bone, making it possible for the shoulder to move freely. 

She emphasises that it is important that the cheetah’s plight be highlighted to inspire more people to take part in the animal’s conservation. With fewer than 7 500 cheetahs remaining in the wild (down from 100 000 a century ago), the survival of the species depends on human conservation action.

Cheetahs require huge areas of land, as they have massive home ranges. A total of between 4 000 to 8 000 square kilometres of suitable habitat is needed for a viable cheetah population.  

Britt says: “Unfortunately, there are very few wildlife areas this big. The best thing we can do for cheetahs to avoid their extinction is habitat protection.”

Cheetah Sasha at LIONSROCK

Living on the edge: Multiscale habitat selection by cheetahs in a human-wildlife landscape 

Research article written by: Britt Klaassen

Read More

Share now!