The cheetah, that most elegant of large cats, is synonymous with speed and feline grace. Sadly, only about 12,400 remain in the wild. Of 25 African countries where they can be found, Namibia has the most, with about 2,500. And in Iran only about 60 critically endangered Asiatic cheetahs are believed to survive.
As every schoolgirl knows, the cheetah can run faster than any other land animal – up to 120 km an hour in short bursts over 500 metres. Cheetahs can accelerate four times as fast as a human and can slow down considerably in a single stride. But agility, rather than raw speed, accounts for much of the cheetah’s ability to catch prey. The cheetah is also one of the few cats with semi-retractable claws, offering extra grip in its high-speed pursuits.
The cheetah’s chest is deep and its waist narrow. Its coarse, short fur is tan with round black spots measuring 2 to 3 cm across, affording it some camouflage while hunting. There are no spots on its white underside, but the tail has marking that merge to form four to six dark rings at the end. The tail usually ends in a bushy white tuft.
The cheetah has a small head with high-set eyes. Its characteristic feature is black “tear marks” running from the corner of its eyes down the sides of the nose to its mouth. They keep sunlight out of its eyes and aid in hunting and seeing long distances.
Cheetah cubs have long tall hair (called a mantle) that runs from their neck all the way down to the base of their tail. The mantle blends into tall grass, which helps keep them safe from lions and hyenas. In the wild, cubs are often the target of predators and many do not survive the first year.
Emperors have sought to tame cheetahs, but few have succeeded. In the late 1950s naturalist Joy Adamson worked with lions in northern Kenya and reared three cubs, the best known of which was Elsa. She wrote about them in three books titled Born Free (1960), Living Free (1961), and Forever Free (1962).
In September 1964, Adamson was asked by a friend to adopt an eight-month-old female cheetah cub owned by a family which was moving to England. As she later explained, the cheetah cub had been found abandoned in a desert region of the Northern Frontier District of Kenya. The Major of a regiment stationed in the area took the orphan and reared her with his children at his home near Nairobi. Adamson recalled their first meeting:
“While we talked, Kitten scrutinized me, her eyes half closed under her heavy brows, then she came over to me, purred loudly and licked my face. While I stroked her soft fur I felt her body vibrating like an engine, breathing in and out she gave the famous cheetah purr, finally she nibbled at my ear. That, I was assured, was a sign of great affection. We now all felt relieved, knowing that I was accepted and that we would soon be good friends.”
Adamson and Pippa (as she renamed her) became inseparable. The cheetah eventually had four litters and all her cubs were introduced to her surrogate mother. Adamson described their life together in The Spotted Sphinx (1969) and Pippa’s Challenge (1972), revealing just how close one can get to these magnificent animals given trust on both sides:
“It is almost impossible to understand them fully unless one is accepted by them as an equal. This necessitates living with them in close proximity, sharing their moods and problems, and – as a consequence – getting mutually attached. I don’t need to say how privileged I feel at having gained the trust, love and willingness to share the lives of the animals which became my great friends.”