Home to some of the greatest wildlife spectacles on our planet, Africa is a continent of utter majesty. Covering around 20% of the Earth’s land surface, Africa is also the second largest continent. Africa’s vast array of habitats, from the Sahara in the north to tropical rainforests and grasslands, provides a world for animals to thrive. After all, Africa is where we, Homo sapiens, first evolved. Ironically, we have also become the continent’s greatest threat. As we destroy more land for homes and agriculture, poach elephants and rhinos for ivory and horns, and exploit the continent for its finite resources, the wildlife of Africa has fewer places to survive.
One predator that has adapted to hunting on open savannas is the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Well known as the fastest land animal, the cheetah can reach speeds of up to 70mph (112 km/h) over short distances. Their accelerating ability is unfathomable – they can reach 60mph in just 3 seconds. This African cat is easily distinguished by its solid black spots, greyhound-like body and tear-like facial markings.
The cheetah is an expert antelope-hunter. Their preferred prey include impala, blesbok, springbok, Grant’s gazelle and Thomson’s gazelle. Before beginning the chase, they use their acute eyesight to scan the open grassland and locate a target. Unlike many of the other big cats of Africa, cheetahs are diurnal (active during the day). This is because they require light to make use of their keen sense of sight. Their coloured coat acts as excellent camouflage in the dry, beige grass. Once within a suitable distance from their prey, they unleash their extraordinary speed. As you can imagine, these chases are exhausting, so each failed hunt takes its toll on the cheetah. They have an average hunting success rate of 40-50%.
Cheetahs are not the largest predators around; they must eat their meals quickly to avoid losing them to lions, hyenas, leopards or jackals. Cheetahs may form groups, enabling them to hunt larger prey like zebras, wildebeest, ostrich and topi. The final episode of ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet’ airs tonight and will show us the story of five male cheetahs in their attempt to find food.
When I visited South Africa in the summer of this year, I was lucky enough to witness the elegance of cheetahs firsthand. Even up-close, they were difficult to spot in the dry, grassy vegetation. There were two of them, jogging along right beside our vehicle, although their ‘jog’ was still ridiculously quick and graceful. They were completely unphased by our presence; their focus was always on the search for prey.
However, even a species this adaptable is facing threats from us. Listed as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), cheetahs are primarily threatened by habitat loss as humans expand their industrial and agricultural markets. At the start of the 20th century, around 100,000 cheetahs roamed throughout Africa and the Middle East. Today, there are fewer than 10,000. Conservation in Africa is crucial to protect some of our planet’s most iconic species and habitats, including our closest living relative – the chimpanzee. Without Africa’s huge diversity of life, we would simply not be here today. Please tune in to the final episode of David Attenborough’s series, ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet’, tonight at 6:20pm in the UK.
Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.
Seven Worlds, One Planet Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nm5XasUl7HM