Acinonyx – Cheetah

Racing to extinction: historically ranging throughout Africa to India, now distributed in small, fragmented populations

Cheetahs, with their striking golden yellowish-tan coats marked by distinctive black spots, embody grace and speed in the animal kingdom. These magnificent felines are instantly recognizable for their unique pelage and built-in anti-glare tear marks, which run from the corners of their eyes to their cheeks. These marks help to deflect the sun’s glare, enabling them to spot prey across the vast, sunlit savannas where they hunt. Additionally, cheetahs possess a combination of physical attributes uniquely suited to high-speed pursuits, including small heads, lean bodies, and exceptionally long legs, all of which contribute to their status as the world’s fastest land animals, capable of speeds up to 70 miles per hour (112 kilometers per hour) in short bursts covering distances up to 1,500 feet (460 meters).

Cheetahs share a common ancestor with the puma and jaguarundi, which suggests that the cheetah’s lineage was not always confined to the African and Asian continents as it is today. Fossil records indicate that cheetahs once roamed across North America and Europe but were victims of a mass extinction event near the end of the last ice age. This catastrophic event drastically reduced the cheetah’s range, leading to the extinction of the North American and European populations and leaving only the Asian and African populations to carry on the lineage.

The situation for wild cheetahs is precarious today, with an estimated 7,000 individuals remaining in Africa and fewer than 50 in Asia. This represents a significant contraction from their historical range, primarily due to habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and the illegal pet trade. The Asiatic cheetah, in particular, faces an extremely high risk of extinction, with its small population confined to parts of Iran. Efforts to conserve and protect these remaining populations are hindered by various challenges, including the recent imprisonment of key conservationists working to save the Asiatic cheetah, casting a shadow over the future of these efforts.