The answer to the question, “What do cheetahs eat?” is fairly simple.
The cheetah lives in an environment that suites the cheetah. What suites the cheetah is sufficient space where he/she can use her skills. Her skills are running at high speed, which allows her to catch prey efficiently.
OK, the cheetah needs large open and usually grassy spaces both for hunting and as a sufficiently large range. The great parks are perfect examples, such the famous Serengeti. The Kruger NP is another – see prey profile for the cheetah at this park.
The prey will come from the same environment. The environment is a biotope, where species of plants and animals live together – all adapted to that specific habitat.
The cheetah is effectively at the top of the food chain as it runs too fast for the animals below her in the food chain. The cheetah uses vision rather than scent and has a good success rate perhaps higher than that of other big cats, but which is dependent on the type of prey, the age and sex of the cheetah, the success of the stalking and if hunting together or alone (see “how they catch prey” in contents foe more). What is just below her in this habitat?
- Thomson’s gazelle – shorter and less fast (50 mph) – preferred prey.
- Grant’s gazelle
Thomson’s gazelle – photo ©kumasawa.
The Tomson’s gazelle accounts for 91% of cheetah prey in the Serengeti. Single cheetah (or subadult cheetahs together) hunt the Thompson’s gazelle in the Serengeti. The map below shows where the Serengeti National Park is (see also cheetah habitat):
Grant’s gazelle – photo ©Roger Meyer. Fawns and young gazelles make up more than half the cheetah prey.
A Thomson’s gazelle is fast (about 50 mph) and can escape capture apparently about 50% of the time. This is probably due to swerving avoidance manoeuvres and tiring the cheetah, who as we know is faster but has limited stamina. The cheetah is built for speed not running efficiency (translated into stamina or endurance).
The gazelle is always present in areas where the cheetah lives and the preferred weight of the prey is 20-50 kilogrammes.
Kirk’s Dik Dik a small antelope photo ©CokeeOrg
Kirk’s Dik Dik is a shy elusive and small antelope found in eastern and south western South Africa including Namibia where the largest population of cheetah are found.
Steenbok antelope photo ©Sharlee-H
Impalas are wonderful athletes too. They are fantastic jumpers. They can jump horizontally up to 10 meters (about 33 feet) and vertically about 3 meters (about 9+ feet). They feed on the grassland and are in the middle of the cheetah food chain. Impalas are the main prey in the Kruger National Park accounting for 68% of all prey of the cheetah.
Springbok – photo ©sallylondon
The Springbok is another fleet footed animal living in wide open places. The Springbok has a top speed similar to the other antelopes and the Impala at about 50 mph, 80 kph. They range in the south western corner of South Africa which includes Namibia, the country with the largest cheetah population. The Springbok makes up the bulk of the cheetah’s prey in areas of Botswana, South West Africa (Namibia).
Warthog photo ©Turkinator
The warthog is a wild pig. Cheetahs tend to (wisely) catch small warthogs. They are fast sprinters.
Cape hare – photo ©Debbie and Gary
The hare is a very fast runner and lives of the grass and shrubs. Uses avoidance manoeuvres to evade the cheetah, zig zagging. This may tire out the cheetah who can manoeuvre well but less well than a hare as she is a lot bigger. A cheetahs partially retractable claws help in manoeuvring. Hares tend to the prey of young cheetah hunting alone.
photo ©copyright jfkmlbcvq
This is obviously an adult and cheetah usually hunt and kill the young of the bigger animals. In fact prey is usually under 40 kilogrammes. Although in the Sereneti, male groups of cheetah hunt 80 kilogram wildebeest.
In addition cheetah prey is zebra (younger animals), rodents, gamebirds Guineafowl.
As mentioned, the cheetah’s speed is best used in the open grassy plains. They usually hunt in the daytime, but this is qualified by the area that is their habitat, the heat of the day and the competition from other big cats.
In the Sahara, where it is expectedly very hot, they hunt at night and at dawn. While in the Serengeti they tend to fit their hunting in around the hunting times of the lions and hyenas. In the Masai Mara, the preferred times for hunting are between 7.30 am and 10 am in the morning and 4.30 pm and 7.30 pm in the afternoon and evening.
The other top predators such as the lion and cheetah are more aggressive than the cheetah and a threat. Cheetah keep a watch for these animals from, for example, termite mounds (see top picture). Watching can occupy 20% of the day (Masai Mara).
As is the case for the other big cats, the cheetah needs to get as close as possible to the prey before attacking. The stalking segment is important because if the prey are alerted and disperse during stalking the hunt fails almost 75% of the time.
Where there is sufficient cover the cheetah might approach to 30 metres before attacking. In areas of less cover the distance might be 200 metres. As is the case for the puma (
for instance), if prey stands its ground and doesn’t run it is unlikely to be attacked (this is how a cougar attack on a person is avoided in America). The fleeing of the prey seems to be the stimulus for the cheetah to chase.
We are all aware of the cheetah’s speed in chasing down prey but this is limited to shortish distances (400 yards). The top speed of the cheetah is 64 mph.
Having caught up with its prey the cheetah knocks it over or trips it with the front paw, brings it down and strangles it, if the prey is large. For smaller prey killing is accomplished by:
- grabbing by the muzzle
- bite to the neck
- hares & young impalas can be killed by biting through the skull.
Cheetah will drag the kill into the shade of a bush if available and rest. Cheetahs usually feed together without argument. When feeding they watch for danger, particularly mothers with cubs. The cheetah may eat about 10 kilogrammes at one sitting and eat fast. The time allowed to spend at a kill undisturbed has an impact on how much is eaten. Sometimes they scavenge (eat the kills of other animals). However, there are few carcasses due to the efficient scavenging of other animals such as the vulture and hyena.
It is thought that cheetahs lose between approximately 10 to 15% of kills to, for example, the hyena (Kruger National Park – 14%).
|Event/Place||% Success Rate|
|Adult cheetah hunting young gazelle||100|
|Adult cheetah hunting adult gazelle||53|
|Nairobi National Park – all hunts||37|
|Nairobi National Park – hunts of juvenile prey||76|
|Female cheetah (all ages) hunting young and new born Thomson’s gazelle||81-100|
|Young cheetah hunting alone for Thomson’s gazelle||15|
|Young cheetah hunting together for Thomson’s gazelle||52|
|Single male cheetah or a pair of male cheetah||25|
|Three cheetah hunting together||50|
What do cheetahs eat – Sources:
- Flickr for the photographs
- Wild Cats of the World – how cheetah’s hunt and figures