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Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus
"Clint" - male cheetah, April 2000 aged 10 years, born Fota Wildlife Park, Cork.

Photo Alex Nichol ©
Cheetah in repose

Photo Andy Smyth ©


The Duncan C. Leggat Charitable Trust generously sponsored a second cheetah enclosure. This was instrumental in our breeding cheetahs for the first time in 1991, when five cubs were mother reared.

Cheetahs are a species benefiting from the Joint Management of Species Programme. We have learned that the crucial thing with cheetahs is to keep" ringing the changes " to maintain an air of novelty, and reduce any development of a brother/sister relationship.

Jacaranda arrived in 1990 from Whipsnade Zoo, and mated with our then resident young male. The five cubs mentioned above were the result.

There are about 100 cheetahs in zoos in the British Isles. The majority have been bred in captivity, mostly at Whipsnade and at Fota Wildlife Park (near Cork). 20 years ago, just a handful of cheetahs were captive bred. Much has since been learned about their welfare and propagation.

Males live either on their own, or in small groups of 2-3, usually brothers (thereby making territorial defence and hunting more efficient). Females in captivity are kept completely separate, only being introduced to the male, or males, to induce oestrus. Zoos work closely together as part of a co-operative breeding programme, moving individuals from zoo to zoo to maintain the novelty and excitement of strangeness, and thus replicating the fundamental nature of cheetah encounters in the wild. Using this technique, cheetah breeding in British zoos has become far more regular.

With regard to genetic variation and maximising genetic diversity, the Species Co-ordinator - aided by computers - does his best. He is not helped by the fact that cheetahs are in-bred, even in the wild. It is believed that they have undergone at least 2 genetic bottlenecks (during which the population reduces to very small numbers before expanding again) quite naturally during the past few thousand years.

The amount of genetic variation is therefore quite limited. In captive breeding for conservation the intention is to conserve what there is, so care goes into the selection of pairs for breeding.

As with many cat species cheetahs may even then steadfastly refuse to co-operate.Clint, a male cheetah, arrived from Edinburgh Zoo , we hoped he would encourage Jacaranda to breed after a gap of several years, however though the pair got on famously they did not breed. Jacaranda died of old age in February 2001 and Clint now waits to see if a female will be made available via the studbook keeper.

Cheetahs eyes are at the front of their face - giving them overlapping fields of vision, allowing depth perception - typical of predators.

They have a mane of long hair - which they can raise in defensive threat. Similarly, mouth opened and lips pulled up to show canine teeth also acts as a defensive threat. The large canine teeth; needed for killing, are found in all mammal carnivores. The coat pattern of the cheetah is unique among cats in having so many distinct spots while the special markings on the ears emphasize warning signals. Their whiskers - special lengthened and stiffened hairs (vibrissae) are sensitive to touch and air movement. Their claws - unlike those of all other cats, are not withdrawn into the paws, but remain like a dog's, extended. They help cheetahs sprint in pursuit of prey (like the spiked shoes of a track runner.)

Cheetahs Chased Out of Africa

Sheepdogs are about to be presented with a much more exciting task - chasing off cheetahs in Africa.
I told you recently about dogs being specifically trained to defend their flock from wolves in the French Alpine pastures.
Now the Namibian government is following that lead to ensure the cheetah population does not destroy livestock.

At the beginning of the 20th century, cheetahs numbered around 100,000. Since then, they have steadily declined.
Now there are around 15,000 world-wide with a tiny population of about 150 left in Iran and southern Russia, all that remains of the nearly-extinct Asiatic cheetah.
Over the past two or three decades in Africa, the principal cause of their demise in Africa has been their unfortunate habit of attacking the livestock of farmers.
Full-grown cows and horses are too big for them, but smaller creatures such as calves and goats are an easy target.
In Namibia, it is official government policy to provide specially-trained Anatolian shepherd dogs - the breed we refer to as Karabash - to chase cheetahs from the herds.
Once trained, they are so effective that there is a lengthy waiting list for any puppies which become available.

Immaculate Conception for Cheetahs?

Question: A customer of mine solemnly says that cheetahs---female ones, of course---can conceive and then give birth without receiving a spermatozoon.
Is that an immaculate fact? In my book it's inconceivable, but I'm willing to learn otherwise.

Is my customer the victim of a popular misconception about that most flexible of the Felidae? Or should I enrol in the school of soft knocks?

Reply: Certainly wrong, I'm afraid. The older - very old - natural history books are full of "myths" about cheetahs and hyaenas (being hermaphrodite, able to change sex back and forth, etc.), but most of these 'misunderstandings' have been straightened out now. What is certain is that the mating of cheetahs is swift and discreet. It is rarely witnessed. In fact, staff at Fota Wildlife Park, near Cork in the South of Ireland, have only witnessed it twice, and they have bred cheetahs dozens of times. The contrast with other big cats is made even greater because they are usually so noisy and conspicuous.

External Resources

Africat - working to save Cheetahs

Our story about specially-trained dogs being used to protect livestock from cheetah attacks in Namibia, prompted an interesting response. I received an e-mail from Mrs Joanna Oliver, the chairman of AfriCat UK, an organisation dedicated to the conservation of these magnificent animals.
She wrote: "While trained dogs can be useful in some circumstances, they are liable to kill indigenous species, such as antelope, if not adequately trained.

"Additionally, leopard, lion and hyena will all readily kill the sheepdogs, thus making them unsuitable for use in areas where predation also occurs from these larger predators."AfriCat works with Namibian farmers on a number of levels to enable them to protect their stock and maintain a healthy cheetah population."Namibia is the world's last stronghold for cheetah and it is vital that they are conserved efficiently."

AfriCat is extremely active in Britain and it is hoped to organise several lectures, including at least one in Scotland during 1999. The Foundation can be found on website:

Africat The Africat Foundation aims to conserve the big cats of Africa.