The cheetah is the fastest animal on land. It can run up to 118 kilometers an hour, but it can only maintain this speed over short distances. The cheetah’s body is adapted to its running ability. Its shoulder blades are set higher up in its body, its chest cavity is larger and more prominent than other feline species, and its claws don’t retract – they remain outside of their pockets (like canine species). The cheetah’s specialty – running – comes at the expense of other important traits, such as the ability to carry prey to a hideout (for example, the leopard drags its prey high up into trees in order to avoid competitors). This leads to tough competition from hyenas, wild dogs, and other predators that sometimes steal its prey.
In the past, the cheetah had lived in vast regions of the world. However, after humans began to reduce its prey (mainly deer) and collect cheetah cubs so that they could be trained, the cheetah population diminished, and it went extinct in vast areas. Another reason for the reduction of the cheetah population is that in the distant past, the cheetah had been nearly driven into extinction by natural causes. The cheetah population recovered, but only a small number of individual cheetahs remained, so the genetic diversity of the species was low. This exposed cheetahs to various diseases, all rooted in a problematic genetic makeup.
Cheetahs were even spotted in Israel as late as fifty years ago. The last individual was spotted in the Arava desert in 1959, and since then, no other cheetah specimens have been sighted in our area. The ancient Hebrew name for this species is namer tzayid (or “hunting leopard”), a name that reflected the fact that these animals were trained to help human hunters hunt deer. For example, Akbar the Great, the Mongolion ruler from India, had 9,000 trained cheetahs during his 49-year reign, which he used on his hunting trips.
Since the cheetah is endangered, zoos try to have as many cheetahs as possible, in order to ensure the survival of the species. However, the cheetah’s behavior, coupled with the species’ genetic problems, make it hard for them to mate in captivity. For example, during the reign of Akbar the Great, only one case of cheetahs mating was recorded, of the 9,000 cheetahs he had. Today, too, only a select few institutions have successfully caused cheetahs to mate, and many related studies are underway. The Biblical Zoo is also participating in the research efforts.