the race between the fastest land animal and extinction

A cheetah, the Bugatti Veyron of the animal kingdom, can accelerate from 0 to 90.6 km/h in under three seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 120 km/h.

The world’s fastest animal is actually the Peregrine Falcon with a top speed of 389 km/h but for mammals, the cheetah is unbeatable and has held this record for ten million consecutive years.  

From its ears to its paws, every part of this cat’s anatomy has been adapted for high speed chases as a result of an evolutionary arms race with its prey and competitors. To minimise air resistance, the cheetah has a small head, flattened ribcage and slender legs. Its ears are small and flat to add to the aerodynamics of the creature but are still able to detect the slightest sound for miles and hear at very high frequencies. Pivoting hips and shoulder blades not being attached to the collarbone allow the legs to stretch and recoil further than most resulting in a stride length of about eight meters, helping to maintain its high speeds. A flexible spine also helps to bring a spring to its stride which actually means the cheetah has its feet in the air more than on the ground when sprinting. It has a long muscular tail that acts as a stabilising rudder, beneficial in breakneck pursuits, and the tip is normally white which is thought to be used as a signalling device helping cubs follow their mother in tall grass. Another adaptation are their sturdy, flat paws with semi-retractable claws, a feature not prevalent in other big cats, that provide grip and traction which are especially needed in fast, sharp turns. Even the inside of this light weight animal, at only 56 kg, is modified to sustain speed – large naval passages with enlarged lungs and heart for maximum efficiency when respiring and circulating oxygen around their body.  

However, the cheetah sprints for roughly twenty seconds at a time and rarely longer than a minute as intense speed leads to exhaustion. Stealth is therefore very important due its limited endurance. The cheetah has a tan fur with black spots which provides camouflage in the long dry grass of sub-Saharan Africa. Although there is a rare variation in the coat pattern which is more striped caused by a recessive mutation in the gene Taqpep and these animals are called King Cheetahs. The cheetah normally hunts in the day with a success rate of 50% and uses sight rather than scent. The black tear marks around its eyes are thought to protect them from glare and also help them to focus on their prey, which includes gazelles, impala, wildebeest calves hare and occasionally ostriches, almost like a rifle scope. Speed is the cheetah’s main defence and so sacrifices power for this heightened ability. The light weight frame of the cheetah results in a lean body, weak jaw and small teeth. After a kill, the animal eats cleanly and quickly, so it only loses about 12% of its food, before stronger predators try to steal the kill as it would surrender kill immediately rather than fight to avoid injury that could hinder its speed needed to obtain another meal. 

About 12,000 years ago, a mass extinction event possibly caused by a large meteor, led to the end to 75% of the world’s large mammal species. Fortunately, a handful of cheetahs survived but this reduction in numbers caused a population bottleneck and meant a severe decrease in its genetic diversity meaning that most cheetahs are physically homogenous and virtually clones with hardly any difference in their blood enzymes. This limited gene pool means it is hard for the species to adapt and survive unexpected disasters, environmental changes and diseases as they are all vulnerable to the same threats. For example, in 1982, Wildlife Safari lost 60% of its cheetahs to an epidemic of viral peritonitis. Cheetahs are notoriously poor breeders due to low sperm count/motility and deformed flagella caused by the low genetic variability. Even if a cub is born, the rate of cub mortality ranges from 50-70% because it can be killed in raids by lions or hyenas, die of exposure, or abandoned by mothers that aren’t skilful enough hunters to support them. Nevertheless, an effective adaptation the cubs have is a mane, which sheds with age, but mimics the appearance of a honey badger, who is sometimes referred to as “the real king of the jungle”, to deter predators. 

Cheetahs require vast amounts of land like most big cats but ever-increasing global human expansion has led to the destruction of habitat for the cheetah and its prey. Despite national parks providing land, Africa is still struggling to support them as there is a high density of other larger predators who inflict competition for prey and increase cub mortality in these game reserve. Therefore, many cheetahs find themselves living on private farmlands where they often collide in conflict with humans and are persecuted, by being shot or trapped, for livestock kills despite not being a nocturnal hunter. A recent study from Queen’s University Belfast, led by Dr Michael Scantlebury, calculated 19 free-roaming cheetahs’ energy expenditure and found it was not significantly different from similar sized mammals which suggests that main energy loss is from travel over long distances. The cheetah’s large organs result in a high resting metabolic rate that means the animal burns a lot of calories even when walking and these distances to find prey are increased by human intervention such as placing fences which inhibit free travel.  

Extinct today throughout the majority of Asia and the Middle-East, except Northern Iran, cheetahs were once hunted by Maharajas to show off their wealth and nobility. These cheetahs were taken from the wild since they were well known for not breeding well in captivity as no one understood that females select the males to breed with and if more than one female occupy the same space, they may supress each other’s reproductive hormones. One Mogul emperor is said to have collected more than 9,000 cheetahs during his 49 year reign. There is still a huge demand for cheetahs as pets and due to the nature of supply and demand, cubs have been illegally smuggled around the world but only 1/6 survive the journey and normally the mother is killed to capture them. Mordecai Ogada, a Kenyan wildlife biologist who studied cheetah-human relationships and wildlife trafficking said “A rich, young man buys himself a cheetah to go with his sports car”. A demand for cheetah-skin shoes in Sudan, as a status symbol, has recently emerged. 

In 1900, there were about 100,000 cheetahs in the wild and now there is an estimated 10,000 left. 

This beautifully sleek species, the only one in its genus Acinonyx, is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature list of vulnerable species and many organisations have been set-up to try and restore the balance of cheetahs in the world. There have been possible ideas to reintroduce them in India, from the BJP (political party), by importing them from Africa, breeding them in captivity and then releasing them into the wold. The Cheetah Conservation Fund, founded in Namibia, has many programmes which aim to address the main threats to the cheetah along with scientific research programmes focussing on cheetah genetics. The CFF educates farmers on the use of non-lethal livestock protection techniques such as guarding dogs and is a founding member of Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking in order to help fight against illegal wildlife trade. Another wildlife conservation fund, SAVE has teamed up with the Central Kalahari Research Group with the aim to study, protect, and recover cheetahs in Botswana. Also, the cheetah’s sperm, tissues and blood samples have been stored in Genome Resource Bank to provide insurance for the animal’s survival. 

The loss of genetic diversity in cheetahs happened thousands of years ago which suggests other reasons such as human activities bare the main responsibility for their rapid decline in numbers. More conservation effort needs to happen soon in order to save the cheetah from extinction in the wild and redeem us from this perilous place. 

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