There are fewer than 10 000 cheetahs in the wild and they are listed by CITES as endangered under Appendix 1. In South Africa the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) estimates there to be about 700 free-roaming 600 in breeding or petting facilities.
Instead of a hearty roar, cheetahs cheep, which is appropriate because at pace they seem to have more in common with a bird than a speeding mammal. Long before a speckled cat hits its top-speed burst (they’ve been logged at 120km/h) its stride is in excess of eight metres and it seems to touch the ground so briefly as to appear permanently airborne.
In evolutionary terms, cheetahs are an enigma. In the business of survival of the fittest, their line should have disappeared into species oblivion ages ago. They are non-aggressive and will retreat rather than defend their catch. They have small jaws and a weak bite. Out on the savanna their cubs are heavily predated.
While sprinting, they overheat in mere seconds and take more than half an hour to recover from a burst of speed. In a chase, their breathing rate shoots from 16 breaths a minute to nearly 160. Unlike other cats, their claws are blunt and no good for climbing trees to escape danger. They’ve sacrificed muscle mass for leanness like any good sprinter.
But the most astounding feature of all is their skeleton. If it wasn’t on four-legs you’d think you were looking at the bones of a bird. They’re long, frighteningly thin and clearly fragile.
Yet genetically cheetahs are the oldest of the cat family – perfect in their savanna niche and unchanged for around three million years. They’ve out-lived ice ages and sabre-tooth cats. Their narrow waist, long legs, deep chest, large nostrils, enlarged heart and lung, special pads for traction and long tail for balance are all designed around the one thing that has given them an evolutionary advantage: speed.
Apart from habitat loss, one of the biggest dangers to cheetahs is that they tame well and lend themselves to touch-experience safaris and as exotic household pets. A trend in South Africa is keeping them in captive facilities that are loosely referred to as breeding centres, sanctuaries or rehabilitation facilities. There are 79 of these housing around 600 of the cats, most in Limpopo, the North West and the Free State. Some of these are open to the public who pay to visit.