The cheetah has a slender, long-legged body with blunt claws that are permanently extended and not protractile, as is the case with the rest of the cat family (cats are frequently but incorrectly described as having “retractable” claws – this would mean that the claws are normally extended and can be retracted at will. The situation is the reverse, in that the claws are normally sheathed and are extended by will, and the term for this “protractile”.) Black “tear marks” run from the corner of its eyes down the sides of the nose to its mouth. It is said that this prevents the sun from reflecting into its eyes when hunting.
Females reach sexual maturity within 20 to 24 months, and males at around 12 months (although they do not usually mate until at least three years old), and mating occurs throughout the year. Females give birth to up to nine cubs after a gestation period of 90 to 98 days, although the average litter size is three to five.
The mortality rate is very high during the early weeks, and up to 90% of the cubs are killed during this time by lions, hyenas or even by eagles. Cubs leave their mother between 13 and 20 months after birth.
Unlike males, females are solitary and tend to avoid each other, though some mother/daughter pairs have been known to continue for small periods of time.
Males are very sociable and will group together for life, usually with their brothers in the same litter. Their ranges are large and their presence in an area unpredictable. One might see cheetahs at MalaMala for periods of up to 22 days in a single month, or go a week or more with no sightings.
The cheetah is a carnivore, eating mostly mammals under 40kg (90lb). While the other big cats mainly hunt by night, the cheetah is a diurnal hunter. It usually hunts either early in the morning or later in the evening when it is not so hot, but there is still enough light.