“Cheetah” comes from the Hindu word chita, meaning “spotted one.” Round black spots cover the cheetah’s tawny fur and a black streak runs down each cheek. An average cheetah measures 4.5 to 5 feet (1.4 to 1.5 meters) long and stands between 27 and 34 inches (69 and 86 centimeters) high at its shoulder. Its tail extends 24 to 32 inches (61 to 81 centimeters). It weighs between 80 and 145 pounds (36 and 66 kilograms).

Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animal. They are capable of bursts of speed up to 70 miles per hour (110 kilometers per hour), but they usually cannot keep up this top speed for more than 1500 feet (455 meters).

Unlike other cats, a cheetah cannot retract its claws. This physical feature allows the animal to dig into the ground as it runs, giving it speed. Whereas leopards and tigers ambush their prey, cheetahs chase their prey down.

Because they exert themselves so much when catching prey, cheetahs often have to rest for up to half an hour before they can eat. Typical cheetah prey includes gazelles, wildebeest, antelope, warthogs, hares, and ground birds.

Male cheetahs often live with their male littermates (brothers) in groups called coalitions. Much more solitary, female cheetahs join their male counterparts only to mate. After a gestation (pregnancy) period of 90 to 95 days, a female cheetah gives birth to a litter of one to eight cubs, which she nurses for three months.

Because she must provide her cubs with fresh kill almost every day, a female cheetah’s hunting territory may cover as much as 310 square miles (800 square kilometers). She will frequently bring small, live prey to her cubs to help them develop hunting skills.

Habitat and current distribution

Cheetahs prefer to inhabit savannas and other arid (dry), open grasslands. The animals are now restricted to Africa south of the Sahara Desert. The largest number of cheetahs is found in Namibia and East Africa.

Wildlife biologists (people who study living organisms) estimate that the total population ranges from 5,000 to 12,000. A small group of cheetahs numbering about 200 was found recently in northern Iran.

History and conservation measures

Cheetahs once ranged over Africa, Arabia, the Middle East, and northern India. Since they can be tamed, cheetahs have been kept for centuries by kings and noblemen as pets and hunting animals. In the mid-1950s, the cheetah population was estimated to be 28,000. Within twenty years, however, that number was cut in half.

Hunting and habitat destruction are the main causes for this drastic decline. Although cheetahs are legally protected in most countries, poachers still hunt them for their fur, which remains popular in Asia and Europe.

Farmers also kill cheetahs, believing the animals might harm their livestock. As grassland is converted into pasture and agricultural land, cheetahs are confined to smaller and smaller areas, limiting their hunting ability.

Reserves have been set up in Africa, but in these protected areas cheetahs face fierce competition from predators such as lions and hyenas. Some African countries like Namibia have tried to introduce cheetahs into areas where they would face few animal or human predators.