Photo of the Week: The Cheetah

A female cheetah sits waiting patiently for her next meal during Chase Dekker's Kenya photography workshop.

This Photo of the Week brings us back to the plains of Africa where the diversity of large and small wildlife is endless. One animal I had never seen in the wild until my recent visit to Kenya was the cheetah. Of course, the cheetah is one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved species, known for its lightning fast speed that can reach 65/mph. What many may not know is how at risk we are from losing the cheetah altogether. Many estimate fewer than 7,000 exist today, a significant drop from the 100,000 that were roaming the African and central Asian continent 100 years ago. That is an insane number when you think about it. Put it this way: For every 1 cheetah, there are about 1.1 million humans (7.7 billion) and that ratio will keep getting bigger as we never stop growing and the cheetah fades away. However, what many point out is that the cheetah may have been doomed long before we started taking over the planet.

If we travel back 2.6 million years, we would have found cheetahs not only living in Africa and Asia but in the wilds of North America as well. The North American cheetah went extinct around 12,000 years ago, right around the end of the last Ice Age. This cheetah fell victim to nature, not humans, as we had barely made an imprint on the frozen continent at that point. What many believe happened is that the North American cheetah couldn’t compete against larger predators such as bears, wolves, mountain lions, and other hunters that don’t exist today. What made it even harder for the cheetah here in North America is that it had fewer options of prey than the African or Asian cheetah. One of the only prey species the North American cheetah seemed to hunt with any sort of regularity was the pronghorn antelope, which can still be found across much of the western United States. We assume the pronghorn was the cheetah’s preferred prey for two reasons: it is much smaller than other large American fauna such as deer, elk, and moose and it is currently the second fastest animal in the world. Today, the pronghorn can bolt over 60/mph across the grasslands, easily outpacing bears and wolves. The pronghorn most likely evolved to reach these top speeds to avoid its only true natural predator at the time, the cheetah.

While cheetahs are large, they are one of the smaller big cats, so they need smaller prey. Rabbits and birds are good for a quick snack, but cheetahs need something more substantial, something more antelope size. Of course, this is the same thing lions, leopards, hyenas, and others eat and this makes it hard for the cheetah to keep its meal. Not to mention, all these other predators can hunt a much larger variety of prey, sometimes even elephants or giraffes if a lion pride is big (or brave) enough. Most cheetah hunts usually end with another large predator ambling over and forcing the slim cat to move on, leaving it hungry and exhausted. On top of all of this, cheetahs have a tough time raising their cubs as recent studies suggest only 5-7% of youngsters make it to adulthood. That is a strikingly low number compared with many other mammals.

I bring up all these facts as they may suggest that the cheetah was always going to give way to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but we humans have most likely accelerated that timeline into bringing the cheetah closer to extinction than it was meant to be. Based on the evidence of the North American cheetah that faced less competition than the African and Asian cheetahs, there is strong reason to believe this was an animal designed with flaws that it did not and still may not overcome. This does not mean we should abandon our conservation efforts in hoping to restore their range and populations, but we need to ramp up our efforts if we are to ensure this species survives into the next century. Enjoy them while they are here because the cheetah will always be one of ear