Cheetahs are fast, super-evolved predators capable of running at really impressive speed. But they are wimps when it comes to defending a kill, relinquishing too easily to bigger, better predators like lions and hyenas. They lose a lot of cubs to predation too. In fact, they are so specialized, they deserve to go extinct.


Cheetahs are fast, for sure. But how fast, exactly? This statistic, it turns out, is hotly disputed. Just as important as speed is agility. Speed and agility help explain why the cheetah is one of the most successful hunters of any carnivore. They do lose a lot of cubs to predation, though they do not deserve to go extinct.

By AfricanConservation – Own work, photo taken at Working with Wildlife, CC BY-SA 4.0,

It is one of the first things a child learns about the natural world. Cheetahs are fast. An eager parent might even feed a budding prodigy some context, like the fact that the cheetah is the fastest living land mammal. There might even be a temptation to put a figure on that speed. But, here, it would be sensible to proceed with caution.

Just days before Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt won the Olympic 100m at London 2012, Sarah (a very fast cheetah at Cincinnati Zoo) ran the same distance far faster, in a cool in 5.95s compared to Bolt’s lazy Olympian 9.63s. Her average speed over the distance was 16.8 ms-1 and she reached a top speed of 27.3 ms-1. This, Cincinnati Zoo claimed, was a “new world speed record”.

I have nothing against Sarah or Cincinnati Zoo but a little digging has turned up a reliable and rather quaint account of an even faster cheetah. The short communication appeared in the Journal of Zoology in 1997, but recounts events that took place in more than 30 years earlier in 1965. The cheetah in question had been orphaned and reared by conservationist David Hopcraft on his farm in Kenya. When old enough, Hopcraft released her back to the wild but from time to time she would drop by, as if paying her old friend a visit.

On one of these reunions, “between 10:00h and 11.30h, on firm level ground with a slight covering of murram dust”, Hopcraft got this cheetah to run repeatedly over a 201.2 m course measured using a surveyor’s tape, with a “taut length of white wool” tied between two posts at the start. In attendance that day was an athletics coach “well used to hand-timing” and armed with “an analogue stopwatch”. By trailing a hunk of meat from the back of a Landrover, Hopcraft induced the cheetah to complete the course three times. Her average speed was 28.7 ms-1. This is much faster than Sarah’s average of 16.8 ms-1 because Sarah was timed from a standing start and Hopcraft’s cheetah wasn’t. But the Kenyan cheetah’s average is still faster than Sarah’s top speed. This is 98 km h-1 or, if you prefer imperial measures, 61 miles per hour. Fast.

But speed isn’t everything. If a cheetah is to hunt successfully, it must stick to the tail of its prey, which requires incredible maneuverability. A couple of years ago scientists fitted some wild cheetahs with nifty GPS collars capable of recording the animal’s hunting dynamics in unprecedented detail. This revealed extraordinary acceleration, deceleration and some incredibly tight twists and turns.

The cheetah boasts several adaptations that help it perform such movements without losing its feet. A wild cheetah weighs around 50 kg and about half of this mass is devoted to its locomotor muscles. It has relatively thick bones, crucial to cope with the extreme forces experienced during high-speed maneuvers. If a cheetah needs to make an especially tight turn (often as it homes in on its prey), it will decelerate rapidly. Think superbikes on a bend. As the cheetah begins to bank, its ridged footpads and non-retractable claws help to prevent it from skidding. Rather like the treads on a tyre. “If all you could do was run fast in a straight line you wouldn’t get very far if you’re hunting gazelle,” says Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London, who has studied cheetah for more than 25 years.

In this time, Durant has revealed plenty of other truths about this fleet-footed cat. For a start, cheetahs have one of the most impressive kill stats of any carnivore. In 2012, she and her colleagues revealed that of 192 chases (observed in the Serengeti over the course of almost 20 years), 114 ended in a kill. That’s a 58% success rate.

But isn’t it true that cheetahs lose a lot of these kills to bigger, better predators? No, it simply isn’t. It is certainly the case that a cheetah will only rarely stand up to competitors like hyenas or a lions, yet Durant and her colleagues have shown that cheetahs only abandon around 10% of their kills to these heavyweights.

How do they pull this off? For a start, they mainly hunt during the day, when lions and hyenas having a kip. Even then, they choose their moments carefully. When Durant played the sound of a lion roaring or hyena whooping, cheetahs became instantly wary and often moved away from the speaker (particularly so when they’d heard a lion). They also became much less likely to hunt. “Their hunting activity goes down to virtually zero if they think there’s another predator around,” says Durant.

When cheetahs do hunt, there is still a lot they can do to avoid being robbed. More often than not (at 65% of kills), they will drag their prize to a more secluded, shadier spot, a precaution that prevents circling vultures from attracted unwanted attention. On average, a cheetah will move its dead prey around 60 m before it takes a bite. But one individual moved its kill more than 700 m. “They are very good at their risk management,” concludes Durant.

Whilst cheetahs seem to be able to handle the competition with bigger predators over food, they don’t do so well at protecting their own offspring, particularly in open habitats like the Serengeti. There, it’s estimated that only around one in five cheetah cubs survive to adolescence at 14 months. Most of this death is as a result of predation, mainly by lions.

The dismal survival of cheetah cubs poses a direct challenge to one of the more outlandish popular myths about cheetahs: cheetah cubs resemble honey badgers in an effort to look more fierce than they are. When I first heard this (from my then six-year-old son), I told him (politely) he was talking cobblers. But he was so insistent, I plugged “cheetah cub” and “honey badger” into the search engine of my choice and what did I find? Photographs of cute, fluffy, white-backed cheetah cubs alongside what, at a glance at a distance, might be mistaken for the notoriously ferocious honey badger or ratel.

I am more than aware that natural selection has resulted in this kind of defensive mimicry over and over. But until someone gets permission to paint spots on the backs of baby cheetahs (which, quite frankly, seems unlikely), I am not prepared to add this to the list of truths about cheetahs.

Durant is keen to correct one popular perception about cheetahs in particular. “You hear quite a lot that they are evolved to the point of extinction,” she says. If you are someone who idly spouts nonsense like this, there are at least three reasons why you should stop. Now. 1) It is not remotely funny. 2) You sound like an ignoramus. 3) It is deeply insulting to cheetahs.

This article was first published on BBC Earth in 2014.

The truth about cheetahs
Tagged on: