What looks like a cat, has the temperament of a dog, enchanted the Ancient Egyptians and can run at speeds of over 70 miles an hour? The answer is the cheetah, one of the most extraordinary living carnivores, but also a species whose existence is threatened.
The cheetah is clearly cat-like. It sounds like a cat and is classified as a member of the cat family but it differs from cats in several ways. It can not retract its claws, although cheetah kittens can do this until they are about ten weeks old. Specialised for speedy running down of prey, it can not climb trees, as its relative the leopard can. Unlike the lion and other big cats, it can not roar, but like domestic cats, purrs when contented. Though it looks like a leopard, its closest cat relatives are the puma and cougar. It is one of relatively few animals that are the sole member of its genus and species (Acinonyx jubatus).
Whereas the other big cats are hard or near impossible to tame, and never entirely trustworthy, cheetahs are placid by nature and have been kept as hunting animals and pets for thousands of years. They were emblems of the Egyptian pharaohs in prehistory, while Emperor Haile Selassie in neighbouring Ethiopia owned a pet cheetah only decades ago.
Cheetahs were once widespread in Africa and Asia, and were even found in North America and Europe. Today fewer than 15 000 individuals remain, mainly in Africa, though they have also survived in lesser numbers in Iran. As is so often the case, their decline has been due to habitat loss and slaughter. With pressure on habitats, but few defences against predators other than speed, they have become more vulnerable to other predators. The Cheetah Conservation Fund estimates that up to 90% of baby cheetahs do not survive due to predation. The cheetahs' fine coat has long been prized and the threat they pose to livestock has sealed many a cheetah's fate. Happily, with education, awareness and legal protection, their safety is much improved.
Another key factor in the cheetah's decline is its biology and genetic makeup. At some point in the deep past cheetah numbers seem to have declined, with interbreeding taking place. The size of the gene pool today is very small, with all cheetahs significantly genetically similar. Low fertility and high mortality rates make the problem worse. Some zoologists believe that the problem is so serious that the species is no longer viable. Genetic uniformity also renders the species vulnerable to disease that could leave no individuals untouched. Breeding programs make certain that unrelated individuals mate, so as not to make matters worse.
The Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia is one of the most prominent groups involved in saving the cheetah. It studies cheetahs that still live wild, runs educational and research programmes and champions the cheetah worldwide. Almost all captive cheetahs come from Namibian bloodlines. Though the future of the cheetah does not look bright, we may be grateful for its continued existence. Creatures like the graceful cheetah remind us of how easy it is to lose a beautiful and valuable animal forever.