Lion predation is the main cause of cheetah cub deaths. Cheetah cubs suffer a considerable mortality rate during the first few months of life. It is difficult, though, to study cheetah cub mortality rates because cheetah mothers keep their cubs well hidden during the first 6-8 weeks of their lives.
Karen Laurenson studied cheetah cub mortality rates in 1987. She documented 36 litters born to 7 mothers. Only three or four litters survived to 14 months of age.
She found that during the first 8 weeks of life when the cubs were hidden in a den, 72.3% of the litters died. A high mortality rate. Two-thirds of the cubs of the twelve litters that died in the den were killed by predators. Abandonment by their mother accounted for 16.7% while 8.3% died of fires or exposure. Lions were the main predators of cubs in dens accounting for 80% of the deaths. Lions killed the entire litters in this study. Lions killed the cubs by biting through the skull or spine. They rarely ate the cub. The cheetah mother often ate her dead cubs.
However the highest mortality rate occurred in the first 2 weeks after the cubs left the den. Having emerged from the den, after two weeks only 51.4% of the cubs at eight weeks of age were alive. By four months of age only 27.8% were alive.
When cubs become mobile they are vulnerable to predators. Spotted hyenas have been recorded killing all four newly mobile cubs from a litter. At four months of age young cheetahs can outrun hyenas and lions.
Up until 17-months-of-age (the age of independence for a cheetah), 73% of cheetah deaths were due to lion predation. Environmental causes accounted for 14% and abandonment 8%.
Other causes of cheetah cub deaths are: floods, cars, disease, male cheetahs and dogs.
Between the age when young cheetahs disperse from the mother’s home range and adulthood, 50% die in fights with other male cheetahs.
It is a wickedly tough life for the beautiful cheetah. However, the data above comes from the Serengeti where not enough cubs survive to replace the adult population. Cub survival rates are much improved where lions and hyenas are absent. For example in Namibia where cheetahs live on farmland (not by choice) they have better survival rates because lions and hyenas have been killed by farmers to protect livestock. Litter sizes are large at double those in the Serengeti (4 per litter).
In the Serengeti, on average, females managed to rear 1.7 cubs to independence in their life. It sounds astonishing. But the Serengeti survival rates are very poor for the cheetah.
As for lifespans, in the Serengeti the maximum lifespan for males is 9.3 years while the average is 5.3 years. The mean lifespan for females reaching 3 years of age was estimated to be 6.2 years longer than for males. The oldest female living to 13.5 years (this is in the wild let’s remind ourselves). In captivity wild caught cheetahs live to 12-16 years of age.
Source: Wild Cats of the World primarily quoting Laurenson MK 1994 High juvenile mortality in cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) and its consequences for maternal care. J. Zool. 234: 387-408.
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