Cheetahs are the fastest mammals on Earth. Their explosive speeds as they hunt in the open grasslands would leave the fastest human sprinters gasping in their dust. But cheetahs are vulnerable to extinction, occurring in fairly low numbers in most countries and reserves, except for a few notable exceptions.

Did you know?

Each cheetah is covered in about 2000 small, round, dark spots.

There is no mammal on Earth that explodes into a run faster than a cheetah. Usain Bolt broke the record at 100 metres in 9.58 seconds. A cheetah can do the same distance in half the time. Not even Bolt in a Maserati could get out of the starting blocks faster.

This is a cat with a greyhound chassis, as wildlife behaviourist Richard Estes so vividly describes it. Tall and distinctively elegant as an athletic supermodel, cheetahs are made for speed.

Its foreshortened face allows larger nasal cavities and greater oxygen intake. Its long legs carry it over 9m per stride at full sprint and its dog-like claws are like athletic cleats, digging in at every stride. Its long heavy tail helps it balance and turn at full speed.

A cheetah can accelerate up to a maximum of 112km/h, but can only maintain that kind of sprint for about 300 metres before its body temperature shoots up to dangerous levels.

It swats at its prey’s hindquarters, tripping it up, then lunges for the windpipe to strangle it. Once it has its kill, and rested a little to get its heart rate down, the cheetah will eat until its stomach is tight as a drum. Unlike cheetahs and lions, it won’t return to the kill, leaving the remains for the jackals, hyenas and other predators.

Learning how to hunt at explosively high speed requires a long apprenticeship, which is why cheetah youngsters stay with their mothers until they are at least 15 months old.

Once cheetahs were widespread all over the world, but now their stronghold is in southern Africa, notably Namibia, with around 3000. South Africa’s population is small but stable at around 850, with less than half in protected areas and the rest free-ranging.

They prefer the wide-open spaces of grasslands and open savannahs, but have been found to do quite well in riverine thickets in the Karoo where they were recently introduced into certain private game reserves.

Here they stalk their prey, much like leopards do, pouncing at the last minute to bring down prey as large as kudus.

In fact, they do well in most places where there are no lions – their traditional mortal enemies.

You could see them in the wild or at a number of highly respected wildlife sanctuaries.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre, near Pretoria (previously called De Wildt)
Tel: +27 (0) 12 504 9906/7/8
Cell: +27 (0) 83 892 0515
Email: cheetah@dewildt.co.za

Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre
Tel: +27 (0) 15 793 1633
Cell: 083 654 2299
Email: office@cheetahcentre.co.za

Cheetah Outreach, Somerset West
Tel: +27 (0) 21 851 6850
Cell: +27 (0) 83 364 6278
Email: cheetah@intekom.co.za

Samara Private Game Reserve, near Graaff-Reinet
Tel: +27 (0) 49 891 0880 or +27 (0) 23 626 6113
Email: lodge@samara.co.za

SANParks reservations
Tel: +27 (0) 12 428 9111
Email: reservations@sanparks.org
Website: www.sanparks.org

How to get here

Your best chance at seeing a cheetah in the wild is in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park or at a private game reserve where cheetahs have been introduced, like Samara in the Eastern Cape.

But there are several respected sanctuaries where breeding programmes have been established to breed cheetahs and rehabilitate wounded cheetahs to release them into the wild. They include Cheetah Outreach in Somerset West near Cape Town, the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre near Pretoria, and the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre near Hoedspruit outside the Kruger National Park.

Best time to visit

Cheetahs can be seen any time of year. In winter (June to August) it might be easier to see them in the wild because there is less vegetation.

Tours to do

For guaranteed cheetah encounters, head for De Wildt or Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, or Cheetah Outreach. Some, like the latter, offer a chance to watch cheetahs do their sprints (something you’d be very lucky to see in the wild).

You could also do cheetah tracking at the Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock, or Samara Private Game Reserve near Graaff-Reinet.

Get around

In a game reserve, it’s best to be in a vehicle (cheetahs aren’t alarmed at cars, whereas they will generally retreat if they see a human on foot).

Length of stay

It’s hard to guarantee a sighting in the wild, so stay for as long as possible. If you go to one of the above-mentioned sanctuaries, set aside several hours.