Too Swift, Clever, and Beautiful

Too Swift, Clever, and Beautiful

The cheetah, Acinonx ubatus, is the most uncatlike of all cats. With claws that are not fully retractile, and legs that are long and straight, the cheetah is a rather doggy feline. Its relatively weak jaws, short teeth, and blunted claws that provide traction for quick turn suggest that the cheetah has sacrificed lethal weapons for speed.

Unquestionably the cheetah is the fastest four—legged creature living today. In just two seconds it can accelerate from a standing position to forty—five miles per hour. When in full stride it can cover 103 feet in a second — seventy miles per hour! This remarkable speed makes the cheetah a most successful hunter, for it merely runs its prey down. The speed factor does, however, limit the cheetah to open savannas, for one could scarcely expect a runner to get up a good head of steam in wooded country.

The favorite prey of the cheetah is the impala or Thompson's gazelle, either of which usually weighs less than the cat. When the cheetah charges, the chances are that it will bypass any prey that is standing still. Impalas often do just that, either while they contemplate what to do next or, more likely, because they are paralyzed by fear. The cheetah must pursue its prey in flight because of its pattern of aggressive hunting.

As the cheetah pulls up beside the fleeing impala, it swings out a paw in midstride and trips the unsuspecting prey. This is quite a remarkable feat considering that the cat is traveling at a clip of over one hundred feet during the single second in which it swings a paw. When the impala trips head over horn, the cheetah slams on its brakes and pounces. The dramatic method of the cheetah is highly successful since, even though it cannot defend its kill against animals with better defensive weaponry, it still survives quite well on whatever remains unstolen.

For all of its speed, the cheetah is not dangerous to man. Unprovoked attacks are, as far as records indicate, unknown. Even provoked attacks are extremely rare and are seldom, if ever, fatal. Humans are simply ignored by the cheetah, as was evidenced by an incident in East Africa. A group of tourists stopped in a Land Rover to photograph a gazelle that was being stalked by three cheetahs. They were able to capture many unusual action shots on film because the cats were using the car as a blind, slipping into position by the front wheel to launch their attack. The animals were so close that the men could have reached out and petted them while, attentive to the gazelle, they totally ignored the humans. Not surprisingly, the hunt was a success.

Since most everyone will agree that the cheetah is the fastest creature on four legs and is not dangerous to man, why is it no used in the sport of racing? Well, it has been tried. In 1937 eight trained cheetahs were imported to England to be matched against greyhounds on a well—known racetrack. The cheetahs, although much faster than the dogs, would not cooperate and simply refused to run. Apparently they saw no purpose to it. One yawned infectiously and just lay down, and the other followed suit.

Another race was tried, with cheetahs competing against each other. It worked at first. Away they sped, but the race was short, for if one pulled ahead the other would simply stop. A single cheetah running on its own covered half the track at breakneck speed. But suddenly and abruptly it stopped and sat waiting for the mechanical rabbit to come around again. And that's why we don't have cheetah races!

In earlier civilizations of Africa, Asia, and Europe the cheetah was much a part of the lives of the people. Rare was the self—indulgent monarch, from 3000 B.C. to the seventeenth century, who did not own a thousand or more captive cheetahs. They were selected from plentiful wild populations and trained to hunt for Sumerian rulers, pharaohs of Egypt, Russian princes, Kublai Khan, Charlemagne, and Leopold I of Austria. For the cheetah it was a one—way trip, because none were bred in captivity. A remarkable incident — a female that produced three kits — was recorded by the son of Mogul emperor Akbar, attesting to the rarity of a captive birth.

Almost 5,000 years of compromising the gene pool of the cheetah has left the twentieth —century population of cheetahs genetically impoverished. A depleted gene pool makes the cheetah more vulnerable to disease and contagion; eighteen cheetahs at a wild animal park in Oregon died suddenly from a virus that is seldom a threat to cats. The two wild populations of cheetahs, in East and South Africa, may include as many of 20,000 or fewer than 2,000. If an epidemic were to strike these groups, the die—off could signal the end of the species. A depleted population, such as the bison or ibex, can often recover rapidly; a species short on genetic diversity can take centuries.

So here we have the vanishing cheetah, the fastest mammal, the most beautiful and graceful, and one of the most clever and successful animals at finding food and escaping its enemies. All this should promise a long and secure niche in the evolutionary scheme of things. Or is it the cheetah's speed, beauty, and grace that make it a pawn to the passions of humans who want to possess all that is bright and beautiful?

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth