Shoulder height 70–80cm. Weight 50–60kg.
This remarkable spotted cat has a greyhound-like build, and is capable of running at 70km per hour in bursts, making it the world's fastest land animal. Despite superficial similarities, you can easily tell a cheetah from a leopard by the former's simple spots, disproportionately small head, streamlined build, diagnostic black tearmarks, and preference for relatively open habitats. It is often seen pacing the plains restlessly, either on its own or in a small family group consisting of a mother and her offspring. Diurnal hunters, cheetah favour the cooler hours of the day to hunt smaller antelope, like springbok, steenbok and duiker; plus young wildebeest, tsessebe and zebra, and also warthog, large birds, and small mammals, such as scrub hares.
Given that cheetah never occur in high densities, Botswana is a better place than most to see them. In areas of dense game, they often lose their prey to lion or spotted hyena, so the relative scarcity of competition in areas like Nxai, Makgadigadi, and the Central Kalahari make these ideal. These also harbour large populations of springbok – a cheetah's ideal prey – and their ability to go for long periods without water gives them flexibility to move far from waterholes. Although cheetah are often thought of as animals of the open savannah, they do need some cover from which to sprint – so the Kalahari's thin scrub is ideal for them.
Having said that, all of my sightings of cheetah in Botswana have been in some of the central Okavango's areas of densest game – on Mboma Island and in the Mombo Concession! Looking through the sightings records at the camps, it's certainly notable that many of these cats move further into the Delta as the waters recede, and then move back out into the surrounding Kalahari to avoid the floods.
Estimates suggest that there are about 4,000–6,000 cheetah left in southern Africa, plus a few in Iran, Pakistan and the near East. (They did occur throughout India, but are now extinct there.) Scientists noting an amazing lack of genetic diversity amongst all living cheetah have suggested that the species must have gone through a 'genetic bottleneck' in the past – thus perhaps all living cheetah are descended from one female. This goes some way to explain why they are very susceptible to disease.