Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal and the most unique and specialized member of the cat family. It can reach speeds of 110 km/h (70 mph). Unlike other cats, the cheetah has a leaner body, longer legs, and has been referred to as the “greyhound” of the cats. It is not an aggressive animal, using flight versus fight. With its weak jaws and small teeth, the price it paid for speed, it cannot fight larger predators to protect its kills or young.
Cheetahs like to live in the open area. Because of their liking for that, they usually are found in the grasslands, desert-like plains, savanna, and like areas that have tall grass. In Uganda cheetahs are traditionally only present in the vicinity of Kidepo Valley National Park though several sightings in the north of Murchison Falls National Park suggest they may yet re-colonize the park. The Cheetah hunts mainly by day and follows its prey from a distance mainly selecting the old, injured or young animals whose speed will be impaired. It’s favourite prey is the gazelle but also preys on the impala, antelope, and other grazing animals. Although usually carnivores they might sometimes eat fruit like watermelon.
The cheetah is often mistaken for a leopard. Its distinguishing marks are the long tear-drop shaped lines on each side of the nose from the corner of its eyes to its mouth. The cheetah’s coat is tan, or buff colour, with black spots measuring from 2 to 3 cm (¾ to 1 ¼ inches) across. There are no spots on its white belly, and the tail has spots which merge to form four to six dark rings at the end. The cheetah's paws have only semi-retractable claws, the only of its type amongst the species of cat, and offer the cat extra grip in its high-speed pursuits.
The female cheetah is solitary but the male lives in groups of twos or threes and is strongly territorial. The mating period lasts throughout the year and following a gestation period of 90 – 95 days the female may produce up to 8, but usually 2 to 5 cubs. 50% of these is killed by predators, the few that survive reach sexual maturity within 20 – 24 months. The cheetah can live anywhere from 10 – 15 years in the wild and even longer in captivity. The cheetah is an endangered species. Its habitat is being destroyed by humans and there is also the problem of poachers. Zoos and federal parks provide many cheetahs with a haven where the survival of its species can be assured. Governmental laws have also been implemented to protect the cheetah.