The savannah sprinter...



The savannah sprinter...




Nimali Africa


May 2024

Meet the cheetah - the fastest thing on four legs

The cheetah is the speed freak of the Serengeti and the natural equivalent of an F1 supercar. Sleek, gorgeous to look at and built to streak across the savannahs like greased lightning, this beautiful big cat is a sprinter extraordinaire, achieving phenomenal acceleration and hitting top speeds of an incredible 112km/h... A testament to nature's remarkable engineering, at Nimali we're blessed to share incredible wilderness areas with this fabulous feline and bear regular witness to its awesome grace and power...

The golden grasslands of Tanzania's Serengeti and Tarangire National Parks stretch out like avast, sun-drenched canvas, teeming with life. They are the perfect hunting grounds for the cheetah - flat, open and easy to navigate, offering the chance to run down prey without interruption or the risk of injury.

The smallest of Africa's big cats, the cheetah is a natural sprinter, designed for hyper acceleration and incredible speed over short distances as opposed to long, drawn out chases. The fastest land animal on the planet, they're designed to go fast, with a slender physique, long, powerful legs, a super-flexible spine they can do zero to 112km/h in three seconds. That's right, almost as fast as the best supercar!

Their aerodynamic build minimises wind resistance during a chase. A small head, a light frame averaging around 60kg, and a long, muscular tail that acts as a counterbalance all contribute to their agility. Unlike other big cats, cheetahs have partially retractable claws, similar to a dog, which provide crucial grip during those high-speed sprints. Even their enlarged nostrils and expanded lungs are specifically designed to maximise oxygen intake during exertion.

The art of the chase

While their speed is unmatched, as we have said, cheetahs are not built for endurance. Think Usain Bolt not Eliud Kipchoge. Their hunts rely on a combination of stealth and a decisive, short-distance chase. Unlike lions who can stalk prey for hours, cheetahs rely on finding prey in the open and using their superior speed to overwhelm them in a brief burst.

Their keen eyesight, with black "tear marks" believed to help reduce glare from the sun, allows them to spot potential prey from afar. Patience is key –cheetahs will meticulously stalk their target, carefully manoeuvring through tall grass or using termite mounds as cover. Once within striking distance, a cheetah will unleash its incredible speed, aiming for a swift and decisive takedown. Their powerful forelimbs and semi-retractable claws are crucial for gripping and tripping prey during the chase.

Social structures

Cheetahs are predominantly solitary creatures. Females raise their cubs alone, teaching them hunting skills and how to survive. However, male cheetahs offer a surprising twist on this solitary life. Brothers from the same litter often form strong bonds, known as coalitions. These coalitions work together to defend territory, which can be crucial for securing access to prey and increasing their hunting success.

The Serengeti and Tarangire offer a particularly compelling environment for cheetah coalitions. The lack of dense cover makes teamwork advantageous. By working together, brothers can patrol a larger area, deterring competitors like lions and hyenas, and potentially overwhelm prey with a co-ordinated attack. This co-operative behaviour, while not as common in females, is a fascinating aspect of cheetah social life.

Females are generally only seen with males when they are mating and females will mate with multiple males when in oestrus, which lasts for about two weeks. Individual males stay for two or three days with the female during this time, mating regularly. Up to six cubs, often sired by different males, are born three months later and stay with their mother for about 18 months.

Under threat

Despite their remarkable adaptations, cheetahs face a number of threats. Habitat loss due to human encroachment on savannah ecosystems is a significant concern. The fragmentation of their natural habitat makes it more difficult for cheetahs to find prey and maintain healthy populations. Additionally, competition from larger predators like lions and hyenas can put a strain on hunting success, particularly when prey populations decline.

However, there is hope. Conservation efforts in Tanzania are playing a vital role in protecting these magnificent animals. The establishment of protected areas like the Serengeti and Tarangire National Parks provides cheetahs with safe havens. Anti-poaching patrols and habitat restoration initiatives are crucial for maintaining healthy prey populations and ensuring cheetahs have the resources they need to thrive.

Close encounters

When you stay with us at Nimali, you have a unique opportunity to witness the cheetah in its natural habitat. Spotting a solitary cheetah scanning the plains for prey, ora coalition of brothers marking their territory, is an unforgettable experience. The chance to witness a cheetah hunt is truly breathtaking. The blur of spotted fur against the golden grasslands... The raw power and determination of a skilled hunter... The agility and speed on full display... All bear testament to the remarkable power and beauty of this incredible big cat and the sheer majesty of these amazing wilderness areas it calls home.

By understanding the unique characteristics, behaviour, and conservation challenges faced by cheetahs, we can appreciate these extraordinary animals even more. Our national parks offer a vital sanctuary for cheetahs, and by supporting these conservation efforts, we can ensure that future generations can continue to marvel at the awe-inspiring spectacle of the cheetah in full flight.

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