Cheetahs are well-known for being the earth's fastest terrestrial species, capable of lighening fast bursts up of up to 112km per hour (70 mph) - speeds that make Usain Bolt look like an amateur. But cheetahs have much more than just their speed to make them fascinating and unique. These animals are not just the fastest, but also the strangest of cats.
The cheetahs' reliance on speed has forced it to make some sacrifices, giving up many of the qualities often associated with big cats. Although of a similar size to leopards, their taller, thinner frame means they are much less powerful than leopards. Cheetahs are animals that must rely on skill rather than strength. Another adaption to running has made their paws more dog-like. Cheetahs lack fully retractable claws, which makes them unable to drag prey to the ground. Instead they must bring down their prey with an expertly executed trip - a technique that a mother must teach to her cubs. Once prey is tripped and the target crashes to the ground, a cheetah will strangle its prey with vicelike hold on the throat.
Cheetahs are the most diurnal of cats, so where they are present in good numbers you may have a reasonable chance of witnessing a hunt during a game drive safari. Early morning and late afternoon are the times to focus your attention on these elegant speedsters. In classic cheetah habitat, such as the Serengeti eco-system, look out for cheetah families sitting on termite mounds or rock-outcrops, seeking out small antelopes or impala for a possible meal. When cheetahs do make a kill, they must eat quickly or face the possibility of having their food stolen by Lions, Hyenas, Wild Dogs or Leopards. Although female cheetahs are almost always solitary, males may band together to form coalitions of up to five strong. This allows the cats to consider prey that would be impossible to hunt alone, such as Topis, Wildebeest and Zebras.
Cheetahs are beautiful animals, able to survive in habitats ranging from harsh deserts to the miombo woodlands of southern Africa. Cheetahs are still present in the mountainous Hoggar Mountains in the central Sahara, however, unlike leopards they can't survive in dense rainforest areas. These animals need space to hunt and like many animals this space is disappearing due to humans. Cheetahs used to range throughout Africa (with the exception of the Congo Basin), through Arabia and on to central India. They have lost 90% of their historical range in the last century or so. In Asia, only perhaps 50 cheetahs survive in central Iran, and the African population numbers around 7000, mainly in Eastern and Southern Africa.
Some of the best places to search for cheetahs on tour include the Serengeti and Maasai Mara ecosystems in Tanzania and Kenya, the Samburu National Park in Kenya and the Etosha National Park in Namibia. In Botswana, both the Okavango Delta and Central Kalahari Game reserve provide excellent viewing possibilities; and Zambia's Kafue National Park is an emerging hotspot for these, the strangest of felines.