While the lion and the leopard rely on getting close to their intended prey before breaking cover, the cheetah’s speed gives it an advantage in the more open savanna. Cheetahs are slightly taller than leopards but not as bulky, probably weighing between 40kg and 60kg. Although cheetahs are members of the cat family, they have dog-like non-retractable claws. This limits their tree-climbing ability but gives them a speed advantage when charging.
Typically, a cheetah will start a charge 60m to 100m from an antelope and, within seconds, will be racing at full tilt. If the buck is alerted in time, it will attempt to throw the cheetah off its trail by zigzagging and dodging between trees and shrubs. Using its long, heavy tail as a stabiliser, the cheetah will single-mindedly pursue its intended prey, trying to anticipate which way it will turn.
At the right moment, it will knock the antelope off balance and grab it by the throat as it falls. Because of the relatively small jaws and teeth, cheetahs are not as effective in killing their prey as quickly as lions or leopards, and it can take between five and 25 minutes for its prey to die.
The element of surprise in hunting is as important for cheetahs as it is for other big predators. While its speed gives it an edge, the cheetah’s vulnerable point is its stamina. It will manage to run at top speed for only about 250m before it needs to catch its breath.
After a high-speed chase, the cheetah desperately needs to rest for about half-an-hour – even before it eats its prey. This is when cheetahs are at their most vulnerable. They are often robbed of their kill by lions or hyaenas during this recovery spell. If the cheetah is unmolested, it normally devours its prey at the kill site.
A cheetah’s food tastes are not as broad as that of the leopard, and it concentrates mostly on small and medium antelope. The cheetah’s diet, comprises of the young of larger animals, as well as warthog, ground birds, porcupines and hares, as well as the smaller antelope
The cheetah’s kill rate is hard to determine, but the consensus is that each cheetah kills between 30 and 150 animals a year, depending on its size, hunting frequency and the condition of the area. Experts believe a single cheetah ideally needs between one and three kilograms of meat a day to stay in shape.
There has been some scientific discussion as to whether they should be classified as part of the dog family because of their non-retractable claws, but they exhibit too many cat-like features, including the ability to purr loudly. Cheetahs cannot roar but can growl and spit like a cat and sometimes they make a peculiar chirping noise.
Unlike lions and leopards, cheetah don’t define a territory to defend. They have a home range which they mark with urine, but will not actively fight off other cheetahs. Socially, cheetahs are somewhere on the scale between lions and leopards. They do not form prides as lions do but small groups of between four and six cheetahs can be common, particularly groupings of brothers.
Cheetah probably live for between 12 and 15 years in the wild. Unlike most other major carnivores, they hunt during the day.
Despite their speed, cheetahs still rely heavily on the element of surprise. Experts believe that a cheetah has a one-in-10 chance of catching an animal that isn’t taken by surprise, and that this rises to a one-in-two chance if the quarry is caught off-guard.
Cheetahs are the most timid of the big cats and there is no record in southern Africa of a cheetah ever having attacked a human.
Read about more Big Predators