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4 Types of Cheetahs: Subspecies, Facts and Photos

The sheer speed of cheetahs running in the wild illustrates the beauty of nature's diversity. Although these wild cats are classified as one species, there are distinctions between the four subspecies. Join us as we learn about the types of cheetahs in the animal kingdom.

Cheetah Classification

Cheetahs are part of the Felidae family, sharing this taxonomic branch with all cats, from ferocious lions to beloved horse cats. They belong to Acinonyx, a monotypic genus composed solely of one cheetah species.

Over the years, taxonomy changed. Initial assessments in 1975 identified five valid subspecies. Then, a 2011 phylogeographic study found minimal genetic differences between the Southern African cheetah and East African cheetah, consolidating this number to four. In 2017, the IUCN Cat Specialist Group validated these four cheetah subspecies1.

Interestingly, these felines are closely related to cougars (Puma concolor) and the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi).

Read More: Cheetah Facts.

4 Types of Cheetah Subspecies

1. Southeast African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus)

Southeast African cheetah
Photo by Wegmann on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

The Southeast African cheetah is a native of South and East Africa. It lives in various habitats, such as the Kalahari Deserts, Okavango Delta savannahs, and grasslands of Kruger National Park. It is the most commonly seen subspecies across Africa.

This cheetah subspecies’ distinguishing features include a golden-yellow coat with a denser spot pattern than other subspecies. The belly shows less spotting, giving way to a distinct white underside visible on the neck and breast region. The face hosts pronounced spots, while the tear marks and brown mustache markings are typically thicker.

Interestingly, once considered different king cheetahs, a variation of this subspecies arose due to a recessive gene mutation. Researchers identified the causative gene in 2012 as transmembrane aminopeptidase2. This mutation gives the king cheetah a varying striped to spotted coat pattern.

2. Northeast African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii)

Northeast African cheetah
Photo by William Warby on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Northeast African cheetah, a subspecies living primarily in Northeast Africa, is characterized by its dense spotted, thick, and coarse fur, the darkest among its relatives. Its distinct white patches around the eyes and notably thick tail are further characteristics. Interestingly, its tail can show either white or black tips.

This subspecies is endangered, with estimates suggesting only around 533 adults remain3. Cheetah populations are dwindling due to threats such as illegal trade, and measures are being taken to conserve their numbers. 

Multiple organizations, such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) and programs like the Cheetah Conservation Initiative (CCI), are in place to conserve this subspecies.

3. Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki)

Northwest African cheetah
Photo by Aardwolf6886 on Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Northwest African cheetah, native to the Sahara and Sahel region, possesses a distinct pale coat. Unlike its darker African relatives, its spots gently fade from black to light brown along the spine to the legs. Often, no spots mark the face, making for a unique appearance.

According to the latest reports, the population of these critically endangered Saharan cheetah subspecies stumbles at a low of 457 individuals. Over half of them live in the northern Central African Republic and Chad. 

4. Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus)

Asiatic cheetah
Photo by Erfan Kouchari on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Asiatic cheetah, nestled in Iran's territories, represents a critically endangered subspecies. Once roaming expansive territories, its presence diminished throughout the 20th century. It primarily lives in open lands, small plains, and semi-desert habitats rich in prey.

Their features include buff-to-light tawny fur etched with small black spots. Notice the black stripes on the tail tip, a significant distinction from their African cousins.

Limited distribution poses an ongoing threat to their survival in the wild. With an estimated population of 60-100, the number of mature breeding adults is less than half. Progress is being made, however, with the implementation of captive breeding programs aimed at safeguarding their future.

Most recently, three cheetah cubs were successfully born in May 2022. However, the lone survivor, Pirouz, died of kidney failure nine months later.

Types of Cheetahs FAQs

1. How many subspecies of cheetahs exist?

There are four recognized subspecies of cheetahs.

2. Where can you predominantly find cheetahs today?

Cheetahs primarily live in southern Africa and eastern Africa, with a small population persisting in the central deserts of Iran.

3. What is the estimated population of cheetahs?

The current estimation is approximately 6,517 mature cheetahs, confined to just 9% of their historical range.

4. What are the prime threats to cheetah populations?

Cheetahs face numerous threats, primarily habitat loss and fragmentation caused by commercial land use, shortage of prey, conflict with humans and other big cats, and illegal wildlife trade. An added issue is roadkill around protected areas.

5. What are the conservation statuses of different cheetah subspecies?

While the general cheetah species is considered vulnerable, the Northeast African cheetah is endangered. The Northwest African cheetah and the Asiatic cheetah are critically endangered.

1

Kitchener, A. C., Breitenmoser-Würsten, C., Eizirik, E., Gentry, A., Werdelin, Lars, Wilting, A., Yamaguchi, N., Abramov, A. V., Christiansen, P., Driscoll, C., Duckworth, J. W., Johnson, Warren E., Luo, S. J., Meijaard, E., O'Donoghue, P., Sanderson, J., Seymour, K., Bruford, M., Groves, C., Hoffmann, M., Nowell, K., Timmons, Z., and Tobe, S. (2017). "A revised taxonomy of the Felidae : The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group." Cat News.

2

Van Aarde, R. J., & Van Dyk, A. (1986). Inheritance of the king coat colour pattern in cheetahs Acinonyx jubatus. Journal of Zoology, 209(4), 573–578.

3

Durant, S.M., Broekhuis, F., Evangelista, P., Tricorache, P., Asfaw, T., Gedow, O. & Marker, L. (2023). Acinonyx jubatus ssp. soemmeringii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2023: e.T231957008A232671735.

By Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Isabela is a determined millennial passionate about continuously seeking out ways to make an impact. With a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering with honors, Isabela’s research expertise and interest in artistic works, coupled with a creative mindset, offers readers a fresh take on different environmental, social, and personal development topics.

Photo by Partha Narasimhan on Unsplash.
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