Cheetah—The Swiftest of Cats
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN KENYA
THE heat hung motionless over the sunbaked savanna. Our binoculars were fixed on a herd of Thomson’s gazelles, their golden striped flanks glowing in the last rays of light from the setting sun. Not far away, perched on a termite mound, another observer was also gazing in the direction of the antelopes. It was a spotted cat with her cubs. Her amber eyes studied the scene intently. Suddenly, her muscles tensed, and she slowly rose and moved in the direction of the herd. Her cubs seemed to know that they were to wait for her return.
Cautiously, she moved forward, concealing herself behind small bushes and tufts of long grass. Her movements were fluid and sure. Coming to within 200 yards [200 m] of her quarry, she suddenly froze. One of the gazelles had looked up and was staring in her direction; then it resumed eating. Once more, she continued her approach. She closed to within 50 yards [50 m] of the unsuspecting animals before she decided to run. Like a coiled spring unleashed, she shot forward into the fading light. The herd of gazelles exploded in all directions, but the cat did not take her eyes off her chosen quarry. She raced across the plain, gaining on the fleet-footed gazelle.
The frightened animal zigzagged to thwart its pursuer, but its evasive maneuvers were no match for the lightning agility of the cat. Then, within a few feet of her prize, she reached out with a forepaw to trip her intended victim. At that moment, she slightly stumbled. In an instant of time, the gazelle was out of sight.
Breathless, the cheetah slowed to a stop, sat down, and looked in the direction of her hungry cubs. I looked at my wife in astonishment. We had just witnessed the raw speed of the amazing cheetah.
The cheetah truly can run like the wind. Incredibly, it can accelerate from a dead stop to about 40 miles per hour [65 kph] in only two seconds! It can attain speeds of up to 70 miles per hour [110 kph]! It is the fastest animal on land. By comparison, a racehorse can reach speeds slightly over 45 miles per hour [72 kph], and the greyhound can sprint to some 40 miles per hour [65 kph]. The cheetah, however, can maintain its amazing speed for only short distances.
The cheetah is slightly built, with long, slender legs and a supple, curved back. Its long spotted tail provides balance as the cheetah banks and turns at high speeds. When running flat out, it can bound with strides over 20 feet long [6 m]. One aid to such swiftness is its unique feet; they are more like those of a dog than those of a cat. It uses its claws to grip the ground for increased traction.
The face of the cheetah is clearly unique and beautiful. Two delicate black lines fall from the eyes to the corners of the mouth, giving the cat a sad, almost forlorn, look. Marked with small, solid spots, its fur is short and is often a light reddish-brown on the body but whitish on the belly. Cubs are much darker at birth and sport a thick mane of long, blue-gray hair that runs from their necks to their tails.
The cheetah calls out with a churring sound or a twittering chirp like a bird. This sound is audible for up to one and a quarter miles [2 km] and is used to communicate with its young and other cheetahs.
The cheetah’s disposition is mild and peaceable in comparison with its fellow cats the lion and the leopard. When contented, it purrs like a giant house cat. It adapts easily to man’s presence and has even been tamed. Of course, a cheetah is no house cat. Full grown, it weighs 100 pounds [45 kg] or more, and its sharp teeth and claws make it a dangerous animal—one to be treated with caution.
The cheetah is not born with the ability to hunt and must be trained extensively by its mother to do so. If a cub is raised in captivity, it will lack the ability to stalk and run down its prey. When a mother and cubs feed together, they do so peacefully, without the squabbling and fighting that is common among feeding lions. In dry areas cheetahs have even been known to dine on succulent melons.
Tourists in African game parks have been amazed at how unafraid these peaceful cats can be. It is not uncommon for a grown cheetah to seek the shade of a tourist van or to jump up on the car hood and gaze through the windshield at the surprised and often frightened passengers.
The female cheetah may give birth to a litter of up to six tiny cubs. She protects them courageously and keeps them well hidden, moving them often in the first few months of their lives. However, despite the efforts of cheetah mothers to protect their young, it seems that only about a third of the cubs survive to adulthood.
Caring for a family of cheetah cubs is no easy task for the mama cheetah. They are full of energy and are extremely playful. The cubs often stalk their resting mother’s tail and pounce on it as she flips it about in typical cat fashion. Wrestling, biting, and chasing one another, they are often oblivious to the ever-present danger of predators.
The Hunter Is Hunted
The cheetah has many enemies in the wild, including lions, leopards, and hyenas. However, the cheetah’s worst enemy is man. Its lovely spotted fur is highly prized for clothing, rugs, and trophies. This fleet-footed creature has been trapped and trained for sport hunting. Because of its refusal to breed in captivity, the cheetah has been pursued to the very ends of its domain to supply this demand. Loss of habitat has also put pressure on the cheetah, so that in East Africa it is now found mainly in game reserves.
In 1900 there were an estimated 100,000 cheetahs in 44 countries. Today there are perhaps only 12,000 that survive in 26 countries, mostly in Africa. Efforts are being made to protect this beautiful spotted cat, yet its numbers continue to dwindle.
Some feel that the cheetah may not be saved from extinction. However, it is reassuring to know that the time is coming when man will fully accept his God-given responsibility to care for, protect, and “have in subjection . . . every living creature that is moving upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28) Only then will there be a sure guarantee that such beautiful cats as the cheetah will delight the inhabitants of the earth forever.