As nearly everyone knows, cheetahs can run faster than any animal on earth. They're capable of short sprints as fast as 120 km/h (75 mph) and can reach such speeds from a standstill in just three seconds. But they cannot seem to outrun the various factors that have sent cheetah populations into drastic decline.
Formerly the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) was far more widespread (see map below right). In historic times cheetahs lived as far east as extreme eastern India and as far north as southern Kazakhstan. Moreover, two-million-year-old fossils are known from China.
But today the cheetah is almost entirely limited to sub-Saharan Africa. For the most part, these animals are now found only either in eastern Africa, around the border between southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, or in southern Africa (primarily northern Namibia, Botswana, and western Zambia). Outside Africa, there is only a small, critically endangered population in northeastern Iran.
Even the African populations are threatened and declining due to loss of habitat, decline in prey, poaching, and the cheetah's being shot as a livestock predator. The future of this beautiful animal looks bleak indeed.
King Cheetahs In 1926 a cat, thought at the time to be a cheetah-leopard hybrid, was trapped near Harare, Zimbabwe. In build, it was cheetah-like, though a bit large, but its coat was leopard-like. Pocock (1927) described it as a new species, the King Cheetah (Acinonyx rex). However, only five more of these cats were sighted up to 1974, when one was photographed in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Two have been captured since. The rarity of these animals and their appearance raise the possibility that they are cheetah-leopard hybrids. However, Lindburg (1989) says king cheetahs are not hybrids, but instead cheetahs that are homozygous for a recessive tabby gene common to most cats and that captive births at the De Wildt Research Centre (Pretoria, South Africa) show the king cheetah is merely a rare variant cheetah. More about big cat hybrids >>