AfriCat foundation: How hot is a running cheetah?

Zero Emissions Research Initiative: the art of clean manufacturing
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My life is conservation – Beavan Munali
July 6, 2012
Zero Emissions Research Initiative: the art of clean manufacturing
July 6, 2012
My life is conservation – Beavan Munali
July 6, 2012

By Brenda de Witt 

Photos courtesy of

Nostrils flare and claws grasp the soil as a cheetah’s fluid greyhound-like body streaks across the golden Namibian soil in pursuit of prey. A supple, flexible spine extends powerful, long lithe legs at a rapid pace, whilst a long slender rudder-like tail helps the cat follow its dodging prey. At its peak, the cheetah reaches its top speed of 104 kilometres per hour.

The cheetah may well be the ultimate running machine, but its life is poised on a knife-edge, with man as its most dangerous enemy. Habitat loss and the growing game and livestock industry in Namibia have resulted in conflict between this fleet-footed cat and farmers. Many farmers perceive cheetahs as problem animals, and trap, poison or shoot them on sight. Fortunately, the AfriCat Foundation provides the Namibian farmer with an alternative to destroying animals that are causing problems.

cheetah africat foundation leopard lion wild dog

Based on the guest farm Okonjima, 50 kilometres south of Otjiwarongo, the AfriCat Foundation is a non-profit organisation that offers to remove trapped cheetahs for the farmer. One of AfriCat’s aims is to return these cats to their natural environment. Only those cheetahs unable to be released owing to injuries or being orphaned or removed from the wild at too young an age to fend for themselves remain at AfriCat. In order to give some of these captive cheetahs an opportunity to eventually return to their natural environment, AfriCat has initiated a Cheetah Rehabilitation Programme. Although carnivores hunt instinctively, conditioning to captivity and inexperience make many captive animals unsuitable for immediate release. Instead, these cheetahs are released into a 10 000-acre TUSK Trust Rehabilitation Area where they can hone their hunting skills. Once the cheetahs have proven they are self-sufficient and can hunt for themselves, they can be relocated to private game reserves.

AfriCat is a conservation organisation that has grown to recognise the need for focusing on research and education to accomplish its long-term mission of conserving Namibia’s large carnivores. Collaboration with scientists and conservation authorities allows for studies to be conducted that provide valuable information on large carnivores and their long-term conservation in Namibia. Indeed, such a research partnership was initiated in September 2005 between the AfriCat Foundation and the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. The study I’m conducting is aimed at answering questions pertaining to how cheetahs regulate their body temperature and adapt to the harsh Namibian environment.

Cheetahs are famed for their incredible speeds, with almost every part of their body being adapted in some way to help them run faster. However, these speeds are very taxing physiologically and the animals soon become exhausted. Thus they are only able to run at full speed for less than three hundred metres. During a sprint, a cheetah’s metabolism and heat production increase enormously, generating an excessive heat load that has the potential of reaching lethal limits. It has been proposed that cheetahs deal with this high heat production during high-speed sprints by storing the heat. If a sprint is of short duration, the cheetah’s body temperature could increase sufficiently to store all the heat produced. The heat gained could then be lost once the cat has stopped running.

cheetah africat foundation leopard lion wild dog

If cheetahs do, in fact, use this heat-storage strategy, the duration of their sprint and possibly hunting success would be determined by the amount of heat they could store before their body temperatures reached lethal limits. Many aspects of cheetah behaviour support the existence of such a strategy. For example, the cheetahs’ high-speed bursts are of short duration and, if unsuccessful, the chase is abandoned after only a few metres. Cheetahs also need an hour of rest between chases. Moreover, cheetahs are one of the few species of large cats that are diurnal, doing most of their hunting during daylight hours. They are also found in savannahs and arid zones where daytime temperatures are exceptionally high, imposing an additional heat load onto the cats, which could further limit their performance during a hunt.

The amount of heat the cat is exposed to may in turn influence its behaviour and activity levels. For example, during the hottest hours of the day, cheetahs supposedly cannot afford to hunt, which may explain why they are commonly seen lying in the shade, mostly on an elevated resting place. This habit would reduce the amount of heat they absorb and expose them to any available cooling breeze.

Since no studies have been done testing the theory of a heat-storage strategy or other adaptations cheetahs might use to regulate their body temperature, a research partnership between the University of Witwatersrand and AfriCat was set up. The objective is to determine how Namibian cheetahs deal with environmental heat and cope with their large heat production during their high-speed sprints. To answer these questions small data loggers that measure and record temperature and activity were surgically implanted in six cheetahs from AfriCat’s Cheetah Rehabilitation Programme. The data loggers collect data at regular set intervals, with no intrusion by the researcher. Before being released into the TUSK Trust Rehabilitation Area, each cheetah was also fitted with a radio collar, allowing the researcher to follow and monitor the progress and behaviour of each individual cat.

The cheetahs have been observed slowly learning the skills of successful hunting and grappling with the task of coping on their own. Later in the year, the data loggers in the six cheetahs will be removed and their data retrieved. This data will then be correlated to environmental weather data and observations of the cheetahs’ behaviour, and hopefully answer questions regarding their body temperatures relative to their behaviour.


This research study is unique because it is the first time that body temperature and activity have been measured in any free-living large African carnivore. Furthermore, understanding the effects of the heat load experienced by cheetahs, and the strategies they use to cope with it, may help address questions regarding their survival, and possibly also help manage their conservation. In turn the present and future increase in global temperatures could play a major role in determining the areas where cheetah are able to cope with the environmental conditions, especially the heat, and may affect their future natural distribution.

“Ecosystems and natural resources are critical sources of wealth that can help

poor people escape from poverty.”

“Without the will of people there can be no conservation.”

“Conservation is all about people living in harmony with their environment.”

These are some of the core principles recognised by conservationists as being necessary for the success of any project aimed at conserving part of the world’s heritage for future generations.

The AfriCat Foundation is an example of a conservation force that evolved to do battle in the 21st century. Based 50 kilometres south of Otjiwarongo in central Namibia on the guest farm Okonjima, the AfriCat Foundation was founded in the early 1990s and was formally registered as a non-profit organisation in August 1993. Over the years the Foundation – which started out primarily as a welfare organisation – identified the need to focus on education and research as being essential to accomplish its mission of conserving Namibia’s large carnivores on a long-term basis. Today the need to involve the people living on the land to bring that goal a step closer is greater than ever.


The AfriCat Foundation is entering a new and exciting phase. The traditional wings of welfare, education and research will be taking on new and dynamic forms. The current clinic at the Foundation, besides facilitating house research, is to be developed to handle as much as possible of the diagnosis and treatment of the health problems encountered. The education sector will be enlarged to include, in addition to the managers of agriculture and conservation, schoolchildren and people working on the land. Research will include projects carried out both at AfriCat and by other large carnivore programmes around the country. A new and exciting wing referred to as Sustainable Living – with the people component of conservation at its core – has been initiated. The AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima will be developed in such a way that it allows those living and working there to benefit directly from farming in predator-friendly and ecologically sound ways. What could be better for a rural farmer than to use drip irrigation to grow fruits and vegetables which he sells to a lodge catering for tourists who want to pay to see carnivores living side by side with the very same farmer on whose land it all started?

Dr Mark Jago, a veterinary surgeon, has been working with the AfriCat Foundation since his arrival in Namibia 13 years ago. He has now joined the AfriCat team as Executive Director, in addition to being the Foundation’s vet. His wife, Laura – a medical doctor – is planning to join the Foundation and will head the Sustainable Living wing. Over the next few years the team will continue to expand, bringing people with a wide variety of skills and committed to conservation in Namibia on board.

This article appeared in the 2006/7 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.

Cheetah fast facts courtesy of AfriCat and Okonjima

Acinonyx jubatus

  • A ‘Rehabilitated Cheetah’ is an orphaned cheetah, that has NOT been hand-raised, but has been in captivity from a cub to adulthood, and is now hunting on its own and been given a second chance to return to the wild.
  • It is important to remember that AfriCat’s cheetah rehabilitation programme was initiated to give some of our captive cheetahs an opportunity to return to their natural environment. Although hunting in carnivores is instinctive, many of the cheetahs at AfriCat lack experience due to being orphaned or removed from the wild at an early age
  • All the rehabilitated cheetahs are monitored daily by radio-tracking them on foot and guests can participate in the tracking of these rehabilitated cheetahs on our “Cheetah Tracking Trail”
  • Besides giving orphaned cheetahs a chance to return to the wild, the success of this project provides other substantial benefits. It gives us the opportunity to assess whether rehabilitation is a successful means of conserving an endangered population and also allows for the number of cheetahs in captivity to be reduced.
  • Shoulder height:   
    • Male 79,62cm 
    • Female 77,71cm
  • Length (tip of nose to base of tail):
    • Male  132,57cm
    • Female   127.48cm
  • Base of tail to end of tail: 
    • Male 77.35 
    • Female 73.73 
  • Weight:   
    • Male 46,25kg
    • Female 39,40kg
  • Habitat:  Cheetahs are found in a wide range of habitats. It is generally accepted that they are diurnal but have also been observed hunting on nights when there is sufficient moonlight.
  • Gestation:  90 – 95 days
  • Diet:   A carnivorous species. Preys on medium size antelope, guinea fowl, hares etc – even jackal at times. Prey is run down at considerable speed over short distances and bowled over by having the hind legs knocked out from under it. Death is brought about by strangulation. It will not eat carrion or anything that has not been freshly killed. Hunting is aided by excellent sight.

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