By Hannah Uttley, of Carleton College

On October 6th of 2018, our group ventured out of the NG19 concession and into NG18 to set up our camp for the next week. It was a long day of packing, driving, and unpacking, but after only a couple hours in our new camp, we got word of a cheetah spotting nearby. Frantically, everybody grabbed their cameras and hopped into the nearest car, and we took off in the direction of the sighting. We ran into some of the rangers for Khuai Private Reserve, and they were kind enough to take some of us in the back of their truck so that we could all go to the sighting together without taking too many cars, which might scare off the animals. As we drove closer, we spotted them—a beautiful adult female cheetah and her two cubs. They were the most spectacular thing I’ve seen in the bush so far. We followed them across the grassland until they stopped in a small patch of sand. They were wary of us at first, but eventually they grew used to our presence and relaxed enough to lie down and even roll around!

A mother cheetah settling in for the night with her two cubs. Photo by Hannah Uttley.


Many students were eager to get pictures of the cheetah and her cubs, so everybody had their cameras out in the back of the truck. Photo by Emma Buckardt.

We were so incredibly fortunate to see these stunning creatures in their natural habitat, as sightings have become increasingly rare. After this incredible experience, I was eager to learn more about them, and share some of the interesting facts that I picked up from Samara, Dix, (two of our instructors here in the field) and the Okavango field guides around camp.

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a diurnal species, meaning it is more active during the day, and is a relatively small predator as far as big cats go, ranging from 40-50 kg in weight, with the biggest males reaching about 60 kg. However, this small stature lends itself to the cheetah’s most famous characteristic—its speed. Cheetahs are the fastest land mammal on the planet, known to reach speeds of 112 km/hr. They utilize this incredible speed to hunt their prey, typically preferring smaller antelope, such as Impala. They use their long tails to maintain their balance as they run, allowing them to pivot quickly and effectively pursue their light-footed prey. It is beneficial for the cheetah if the pursuit doesn’t end immediately, because the longer the pursuit, the more exhausted their prey becomes, and the less likely it is to injure the cheetah with horns or hooves when the cat goes for the strangle hold (its preferred method of killing).

Cheetahs (top) have much leaner, smaller bodies and much smaller heads compared to leopards (bottom). Both big cats shown here are female, which allows for a more realistic comparison. Leopard Photo by Ian Nadel; Cheetah Photo by Jack Templeton.

However, their smaller bodies,  which afford them their incredible speed, are not built for conflict. Because of this, cheetahs must constantly worry about their kills being stolen from them by lions, leopards, hyenas, or other large predators. To limit the likelihood of their prey being discovered, cheetahs eat around the internal organs of their kill (unlike other big cats and carnivores, who eat the nutrient-rich organs first), as the smell of the organs attracts other predators to the scene. Female cheetahs typically hunt alone, but males are known to form coalitions of up to 4 cheetahs. These males will live together and hunt together, working as a team to take down larger animals such as wildebeest. Only the most dominant male in the group is allowed to mate, but because coalitions typically consist of brothers that have the genetic similarity of twins, the genetic information of the group is essentially passed on. In fact, there is very little genetic variation across the species in general. There are several theories as to why and how this is the case. Some argue that there was a bottleneck event, which wiped out all but a small, homogenous group of cheetahs which then bred to replenish the species with limited genetic information. However, others argue that cheetahs have always had low genetic diversity.

When it comes to actually passing on genetic information, cheetahs don’t have the easiest time. A female cheetah will have an average of 3-4 cubs per pregnancy but will be extremely fortunate if even half of her cubs survive to adulthood. For example, leopards are especially competitive with cheetahs, since they share many of the same resources, and they will kill any cheetah cubs they come across. Since the cubs remain hidden while the mother hunts, there are many occasions in which the cubs are separated, isolated, and vulnerable. Cheetah cubs are pretty useless when it comes to defending themselves and are entirely dependent on their mother for their first year of life, learning everything they know from her. The cubs typically have a white mohawk of fur on their heads when they’re young.

These cubs have an abundance of fuzzy fur around their heads. You can just see the light fur on the tops of their heads as they simultaneously size us up. Photo by Emma Buckardt.

While it looks adorable to us, it is thought that it is an adaption to make the cubs look bigger and scarier than they are, or even to mimic the white stripe of the honey badger, a particularly fierce species. If they survive, after a year, they become independent from their mothers and venture off to hunt for themselves.

Overall, the cheetah is a specialized and striking predator, and I hope that they continue to be a presence in the Botswana bush for many years to come.