Game drives at Abelana Game Reserve have been dishing up some wonderful surprises of late, with some of the most exciting being regular sightings of cheetah! Perhaps the most underrated of Africa’s big cats, the cheetah is also one of its most threatened, with an estimated 6,600 adults left in the wild and only around 5% of cubs surviving to adulthood.
So being able to see cheetah here on Abelana is a rare and truly profound privilege.
The cheetah is a highly specialised hunter that relies on its incredible speed to chase down and overpower prey. It’s built to run fast, being slender with long, muscular legs in relation to its overall body size and compared to other cats. It has a deep chest and a long tail which acts as a rudder when running, helping it to maintain balance and turn without falling over.
The cheetah is the only cat that can’t retract its claws – an adaptation that allows it to retain traction, along with special pads on the soles of its feet that give it extra grip. Its spine is extremely flexible and its head is small and rounded, making it more aerodynamic and helping it achieve the top speeds for which it has become legendary.
It can achieve up to 120km/hour in short sprints, making it the world’s fastest land mammal, but it’s not a robust predator like its cousins, the lion and leopard. It’s rather timid, targetting prey like impala, duiker and steenbok as well as small mammals like scrub hares and even birds.
It’s also not a terribly successful hunter as most attempts fail. It stalks its prey, getting as close as possible before using a short burst of speed to run it down, knocking it to the ground with its paw and suffocating it with a bite to the throat. The cheetah tries to eat as quickly as possible while keeping an eye out for scavengers and other predators that are likely to steal the kill.
Cheetahs are solitary animals. Males are sometimes seen living in coalitions of other, related males but females stick to themselves. They’re nomadic, never staying in one place for too long. You’ll see male and females with one another when they are mating, but as soon as she has cubs the males disappear. Mothers spend a long time with their cubs teaching them to hunt, and sometimes bringing small, live prey for them to “practice” on.
Perhaps the biggest threat to cheetahs, as well as most African mammal species, is habitat loss, as well as human-wildlife conflict. Sadly, they are also poached for their beautiful, spotted skin and captured for the illegal exotic pet trade. The cheetah we are seeing regularly on Abelana was captured on camera by intrepid Abelana River Lodge guide Bill Drew during a morning game drive coffee stop. “It was a wonderful surprise, and just goes to show how the bush is always going to throw the unexpected at you, which is what makes game drives so special – you never know what you are going to see,” says Bill.