Words: Nina van Schalkwyk
Words: Nina van Schalkwyk
Cheetahs are the fastest land animals on earth. Probably one of the most well-known mammals. They even make really cute plush toys. And in Namibia, their populations are on the up and up, due to the fantastic efforts of conservation organisations and government. But cheetahs still have a lot about them to surprise us with. Here are a few facts about cheetahs that you might not have known:
The biggest advantage cheetahs have over their prey is their fantastic speed. Going at more than 60 km/h, these felines can outrun any other big cats, not to mention prey. But what happens when they reach their fleeing four-legged meals? Whereas bigger felines like lions can be seen to basically jump onto their prey, digging in with their claws, cheetahs have a much more elegant technique. They simply trip their prey. While in the chase, as soon as the cheetah gets near enough to an ill-fated antelope or the like, it shoots out one long limb before the spindly legs of its chase. Ka-pow! And within the cloud of dust that ensues, the cheetah’s dinner is brought to a sudden and not quite so elegant stop before being even less elegantly devoured. Who said wildlife is pretty?
Cheetahs aren’t special just because they are the fastest land animal on earth (the second animal is an awkward-looking buck from North America called a Pronghorn Antelope), they’re special because they’re also one of a kind. Unfortunately, the other members of their “kind” have long since ceased to exist.
Cheetahs are the only living species of the genus Acinonyx. If the word genus brings up flashbacks from biology lessons ill-remembered, let’s just say that it’s a part of classifying all living things. Us humans, for example, fall under the genus Homo. Homo is Latin for “human being,” and the genus contains long-ago humanoids that are only present today through their fossils. So like cheetahs, we are also the only living members of our kind.
But how does the feline part come into it?
So this is where your biology class steps in. Cheetahs and other big cats are related to each other through their family, Felidae. All creatures are organized into a kingdom (think, Animal Kingdom), a class and third a family. These of course are classified even further, but let’s not go into that. All you need to know is that the big cats (i.e. lions, cheetahs, jaguars, etc) are all of the family Felidae. And much like human families, they don’t always get along. In fact, most of the time, they avoid each other, sometimes, they get into fights, and they never share a meal. The cheetah is classified as belonging to the Puma lineage, which it shares with its closest relatives, the cougar and the jaguarundi, a small wild cat native to the Americas. So, luckily for the cheetah, its close relatives live too far away for family visits.
Once upon a time, many years ago, a man known as Major A. Cooper encounter an animal that he deemed to be similar to cheetahs, but different enough that he suspected it to be a different species entirely. Turns out he was not quite right about them being of a different species, but these cheetahs do look quite different. Unlike your average cheetah, the cheetahs Cooper noted had much thicker fur, as well as three dark stripes on its back. Doesn’t sound very cheetah-like, does it? But it turns out, these cats, which were named Acinonyx rex (“rex” being Latin for king), just had a mutation in a recessive gene, which caused their slightly different appearance. And that also explained why these “king” cheetahs aren’t all that common. In fact, only a few have been recorded since ol’ Cooper spotted the first one.
Not many, but a few. In fact, the cheetahs that roam the east are a subspecies that are critically endangered. In 2017, there were less than 50 individual cheetahs in Iran, and don’t even think about going to look for them in their old habitats, either. Although cheetah used to occur in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Turkey and elsewhere, their presence in these countries has long since ended. But the fact that they once did slink around Asia is forever enshrined in the history books. Which brings us to number five…
You might not think it now, considering how most of their habitat has been all but destroyed by humankind, but back in the day people were big fans of cheetahs. In fact, there are a few historic artefacts that have shown that the relationship between man and cheetah was less like indifferent co-habitants and more like hunting-buddings. The name “cheetah” comes from the Sanskrit word for “bright”, which gives you an idea of the animal’s aged relationship with us. But more evidence than just its name is the fact that they are “relatively” easy to tame. For some reason that I’m sure no reasonable or logically-thinking being could explain, cheetahs show little aggression towards humans and, as a consequence, they were frequently tamed in the old days. There are examples of tame cheetahs in Egyptian reliefs in the Dier el-Bahari temple complex, leashed cheetahs referred to as “panthers of the north”. There’s even a painting of Giuliano de’ Medici with a cheetah behind him on horseback. Yes, you read that right. On horseback. Because, why not? Put kitty on the horse and let’s go hunting.
Historically, the nobility went hunting with them all the time. In the Middle East, cheetahs even had special seats behind the saddles. The earliest depiction of them from eastern Asia shows cheetahs mounted on horses (from the Tang dynasty, 700-1000 AD) .
One can only wonder what the horses thought about all this.