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Also called hunting leopard (Acinonyx jubatus), a slender, long-legged cat of the family Felidae that lives on the open plains of southern, central, and eastern Africa and in the Middle East, where it is all but extinct. The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world over short distances, capable of attaining speeds as great as 100 km (60 miles) per hour. As its long legs and strong hindquarters suggest, it is built for running. Its claws, which provide traction, differ from those of other cats in being only partly retractable and in lacking protective sheaths.
The cheetah reaches a length of about 140 cm, with the tail accounting for another 75-80 cm; it stands, on average, 80 cm at the shoulder and weighs 50-60 kg. From birth to the age of about three months, the cheetah has a dark-spotted coat with long, blue-gray hair on the head, neck, and back. The crisp, coarse fur of the adult is sandy yellow above, white below, and covered with numerous small black spots; a black streak runs down the face from the corner of each eye.
The cheetah hunts alone or in small groups. It usually hunts in the morning or late afternoon, cautiously stalking its prey (usually a small antelope) and then running it down in a final rapid sprint. The cheetah has long been trapped and tamed in Asia, where it has been used for coursing game, but it has seldom bred in captivity. Its litters consist of two to four kittens, and the gestation period is about 95 days. The African race of the cheetah is relatively uncommon; the Asiatic race is listed as critically endangered in the Red Data Book and is extinct in much of its former range. ♣
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
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