The cheetah is a large cat with dotted coat. This animal is identified by black marks (so-called "tear marks"), running down from the inner eye along the nose to the outside of the mouth. This feline is an extremely agile animal, having powerful hind legs and very flexible, muscular spine. The body is long and slender, covered with coarse yellowish fur with small black markings. The tail is spotted with ringed markings, having black tip on its end. In addition, the tail is quite long, helping the cheetah to keep balance and change direction. The head is small and the eyes are set high, which help them find potential prey in the grasslands. Claws of cheetah are non-retractable; they dig their claws into the ground, which enhances their grip at high speed.
The species is distributed over eastern and southern Africa as well as in the Middle East. Generally, the cheetahs occur in grasslands and savannas. However, they can be found in various habitats such mountainous areas or terrains with dense vegetation. In order to hide from predators, these animals prefer environment with lush vegetation such as tall grass or bushes.
Unlike other large African predators such as lion or hyena, cheetah is most active during the day, thus avoiding competition for food with these animals. Home range of a cheetah can cover large territory, sometimes overlapping with that of another cheetah or a lion. Female cheetahs tend to roam across much larger home range than males. These cats are extremely sociable animals. Male cheetahs usually gather in small groups with their siblings while females tend to lead solitary life, gathering only when they nurse their cubs. The cheetahs are very shy and cautious, being able to hunt in the heat of the day and remain unnoticed.
The cheetahs are carnivores. They feed mainly upon gazelles while small and medium-sized ungulates such as impalas are a good complement to their usual diet. When there’s shortage of suitable food, these animals can also consume small species such as hares or birds.
They have polygynous mating system, where a male mates with multiple females. In addition, male cheetahs associate with females only for mating and do not provide parental care. These animals breed all year round. The period of gestation lasts about three months, after which 2-5 cubs are born. Newborn babies are blind, being completely vulnerable. Over the following few months, the cubs are breastfed until they start eating meat. Soon the young start to accompany their mother during the hunt in order to watch and learn hunting skills. Also, they learn hunting techniques while playing with their siblings. The cubs live with their mother until they are able to hunt independently. Then, between the age of 18 months and 2 years, they leave to find their own territory. Female cheetahs reach sexual maturity at 21-22 months old.
The major threats to cheetahs’ population include diseases, habitat loss, hunting and direct persecution. These animals are persecuted by farmers due to being predators, hunting on livestock. Development of tourism in the areas of their habitat can become another serious threat: tourist vehicles can drive the cheetahs away from their kills and separate cubs from their mother. The cheetahs are known to have extremely low genetic variation, which makes the survival of this species even more difficult.
The global population of cheetahs is currently decreasing, and on the IUCN Red List, the species is classified as Vulnerable (VU). The cheetah population in Africa is around 6.674 mature individuals. In addition, about 60-100 cheetahs live in small isolated populations in Iran.
Due to being predators, cheetahs control populations of prey species they feed upon. Otherwise, populations these animals could become so large, that they would break down the whole food web, eating all the vegetation in the area and ruining the soil. On the other hand, cheetahs hunt on weak or sick animals, thus not allowing weaker genes to pass to the next generations and maintaining the health within prey species.