One of the most highly sought after sightings on an African safari is the cheetah, and millions of tourists swarm to east Africa every year to catch a glimpse of these beautiful cats where viewing is best.

What is the Cheetah?

The cheetah is one of Africa’s big cats and one of the continent’s most iconic species. They are a large, slim, spotted cat and

They are the fastest land animal on earth, able to reach speeds of up to 70 miles/120 kilometres per hour. They are exceptional hunters and historically were even called the ‘hunting cat’.

Cheetah vs Jaguar

All the spotted big cats are commonly confused because at first glance they can look quite similar. However the cheetah and the jaguar are entirely different species, found on completely different continents.

Jaguar in the Pantanal | Marlon Du Toit (@marlondutoit)

The jaguar lives in the jungles of south America, while the cheetah thrives on the plains of Africa. Jaguars are short, stocky cats with a large head and powerful jaws. They are extremely aquatic and famous for hunting caiman straight out of the Amazon river. The cheetah couldn’t be any more opposite – here’s how!


How big do Cheetahs get?

The cheetah is a tall, slender cat with long legs relative to their body. The typical adult stands between 2 and 3 ft. (60-95cm) at the shoulder, and males are slightly bigger than females.

They are a slim species with a narrow waist, built for speed rather than power. Not very muscular, adult cheetah range between 50 and 180lbs. (35-75kg) on average depending on age and geographic location.

Cheetah scouting the plains for potential prey | (@rishi_rudani)

Cheetah spots

A cheetah’s golden-brown coat features one of the most amazing patterns in the animal kingdom. They are entirely covered in small, solid black spots. These spots create a pattern as unique to each individual as fingerprints are to humans. They do not have spots on their underbelly, but they do have spots on their tail – which ends if a white tuft tip.

The purpose of these spots is to help the felines camouflage as they move through the bush, by offsetting their shape against the surroundings.

How long is a Cheetah’s tail?

The cheetah has a long, muscular tail that acts as a rudder during high speed chases on the savanna. Averaging between 24 and 32 inches (60-80cm) long, their tail stabilises and counterbalances movements as they mimic the zig-zag running pattern of the fleeing animal in-front of them. This allows for sudden bursts speed and rapid change of direction.

Cheetah crossing a dirt road
Cheetah crossing a dirt road | (@brahmanandkoriphoto)

Do cheetahs have retractable claws?

Unlike most cats, a cheetah’s claws are only semi-retractable. Their footprints show small tips on the edge of each toe pad and appear more like dog spoor than cat tracks.

Their claws are blunt and curved, and act like running spikes. They also have ridges running along their foot pads, which along with their claws, allow for increased traction while running through the grasslands.

Why do cheetahs have tear marks?

One of the cheetah’s most iconic physical features are the black ‘tear’ markings on its face. These are stripes that run from the corner of each eye down either side of their nose.

Cheetah looking up after having a drink, showing off its ‘tear marks’ | (@thomasvijayan_

The origin of these ‘tear marks‘ is shrouded in much mystery and fable. However scientists believe that these markings protect the animal’s eyes from the sun’s glare. Acting like a rifle scope, they help the cheetah focus on their prey items from long distances.


What do cheetah eat?

The cheetah is a carnivore that hunts and kills for their food.

Prey items vary between location, but commonly they feed on; gazelle, springbok, impala, rabbits, birds and wildebeest.

Cheetah hunting a gazelle in the Masai Mara
Cheetah hunting a gazelle in the Masai Mara | (@paraschandaria)