Encounter Wild Cheetahs: A Complete Guide

If you have been dreaming of encountering wild cheetahs in their natural habitat, then look no further than our Complete Guide to Encounter Wild Cheetahs.

Have a look at our newest article to meet this enigmatic feline and find out more about where you can find them in the wild!

encounter wild cheetahs

You can read the entire article or jump to any section:

Cheetah facts

The fastest land mammal

Hunting

Where do cheetahs live?

Cheetah conservation

Encounter cheetahs in the wild

Cheetah facts

Did you know that cheetahs have between 2,000 and 3,000 spots? And that these spots help them to camouflage themselves? 

Want to find out even more about Cheetahs? Then you’re in the right place!

encounter wild cheetahs

Appearance

The word “Cheetah” is derived from the Hindi word “Chita” meaning “spotted one”. This is very apt, as cheetahs have a pale yellow coat with black dots on the upper parts, and are white on the underbelly. Their faces are distinguished by prominent, black lines that curve from the inner corner of each eye to the outer corners of the mouth.

Cheetah cubs grow quickly in size but are distinguishable by the fluffy grey tuft of hair that runs along the backs of their necks.

encounter wild cheetahs

Social animals?

Cheetahs are a curious mix of solitary and social. 

Female cheetahs mostly live on their own, except when they are rearing their cubs. Cheetah cubs remain dependent upon their mothers for anywhere from 12 to 20 months. Siblings only stay together for around six months after leaving the mother and then they either go off on their own, or a coalition of the male siblings will form. This coalition will live and hunt together. 

Cheetahs are unique in the cat family

In comparison with other big cats, cheetahs are significantly smaller and lighter than leopards and lions.

Although they are the smallest, cheetahs have the longest legs of any cat. This is what enables them to have a stride of over 10m in length – perfect for those long chases over open ground.

encounter cheetah in the wild guide namibia

They also have non-retractable claws – more like dogs than cats!

Communication

Another factor that distinguishes the cheetah from other big cats is the fact that it cannot roar!

Compared to other big cats (such as lions, tigers, and leopards) cheetahs have a very wide vocabulary. Cheetahs communicate in many different ways. Some of these are through vocalizations such as purrs, bleats, barks, growls, hisses, and a characteristic high pitched chirping sound. 

Each vocalization has a specific meaning. Various types of chirping, for example, could be a mother giving instructions to her cubs, or a female trying to attract a male to mate.

Another way to communicate is through marking. A Cheetah will mark their territory by urinating or by rubbing their cheek and chin on an object. The saliva and urine that is secreted contains chemical information about the individuals. Cheetahs will mark territory to better avoid one another.

The fastest land mammal

The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, reaching speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. They can accelerate from 0 to 68 miles per hour in just three seconds – that’s faster than a sports car accelerates! 

Look at this stunning video that shows the science behind a cheetah’s fast run in slow motion:

Built for speed

The cheetah is an example of remarkable natural engineering with a series of evolutionary adaptations perfectly suited to its fast-paced life.

Its body has evolved for speed, with long legs, an elongated spine, adapted claws to grip the ground and a long tail for balance. Thanks to this unique build, cheetahs are the only big cat that can turn in mid-air while sprinting.

The long fluid body of a cheetah is set over extremely light bones, accompanied with large nasal passages, and oversized lungs, liver, heart, and adrenals that enable rapid physical response. 

Cheetahs’ long muscular tails have a flat shape that is used for balance and steering. The tail essentially acts like a rudder on a boat and helps them to make sharp turns while running at high speeds.

Hunting

Unlike other big cats, cheetahs hunt mostly by day. This is partly because their hunting success depends on long lines of sight, but it also enables them to avoid nocturnal predators such as lions, leopards and spotted hyenas – all of which will drive cheetahs from their kills. 

Their incredible speed allows them to run up to 105km/h (around 65 miles per hour). But this uses so much of their energy that they are unable to maintain such speeds over long distances. So their chase can only last for half a kilometer.

Diet

Cheetahs in Africa prefer to hunt impala and gazelles, but they have also been known to bring down nyala, which can be twice the body weight of an adult cheetah. They also prey on young wildebeest and zebras. They have been known to prey on sheep and other small farm animals, which means farmers are likely to set cheetah traps and kill them in order to protect livestock.

encounter wild cheetahs

Cheetahs are adapted to live in very dry environments and open plains, so they can go up to four days without a drink of water.

Where do cheetahs live?

Cheetahs live in a variety of environments. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, cheetahs can be found in dry forests, grasslands, open plains, and desert regions.

Distribution

Cheetahs once lived all across most of Africa, as well as in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent. Now they are restricted to small numbers in highly fragmented populations. 

Nearly all wild cheetahs can be found in sub-Saharan Africa, where they roam open, grassy savannah plains and open forests. A small population lives in north-eastern Iran, although only a few dozen remain here.

wild cheetah distribution
Wild cheetah distribution map

Cheetah conservation

A landmark study in 2016 found that just 7 100 cheetahs remain in the wild. Almost half of these live in Southern Africa – the cheetah’s last stronghold. Namibia has the world’s largest population, but the increasing conflict between cheetahs and farmers due to human encroachment on former wilderness areas are threatening their population.

Cheetahs are classified as endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. With less than 10 thousand individuals left in the wild, cheetahs are now Africa’s most endangered big cat.

Endangered species

The 3 main reasons that cheetahs are endangered are: hunting, habitat loss and poor genetic diversity. 

Historically, cheetahs have been hunted for their fur, but today some of the biggest threats to their survival are loss of habitat, and competition for resources. 

Cheetahs require large areas of land for survival, so increased human settlements and road construction encroaching in their habitat poses a serious risk to their survival.

Genetic diversity

Good genetic variation between individual animals of the same species is essential in order to protect the species from genetic problems, infectious diseases and other health issues. This ensures that the species, individually and as a whole, can adapt to changes in the environment and can continue to survive.

encounter cheetah in wild

About 10 000 years ago extreme climatic changes drove many animal species to extinction. The cheetah species that survived this period found itself in a genetic bottleneck with only a few animals left. This led to close relatives mating with one another and resulted in genetic inbreeding. Genetic ecologists believe that this is what caused the cheetahs to lose their genetic diversity as time went by.

Conservation efforts

Conservation efforts are underway to enable the population to regrow. Amazing groups such as the African Wildlife Foundation and the Cheetah Conservation Fund work with local communities near cheetah populations to create sustainable solutions where there is human-animal conflict.

Protected areas and wildlife parks, such as the Cheetah Experience in South Africa, protect cheetahs when their habitat is destroyed.

Encounter cheetahs in the wild

Most people list the leopard as the most elusive of the big cats to locate on safari. In truth, cheetahs on safari can be even more difficult to sight because they are less abundant. 

Regular sightings of cheetah on safari are usually sporadic and local, so don’t be discouraged if it takes you a few days to spot one.

The best places to see cheetahs would be on a wildlife Safari in Africa. We’ve put together the top places where you can see cheetahs in their natural habitat:

1. South Africa

South Africa is a country absolutely brimming with immense natural beauty and friendly people. So there are many more reasons to visit this beautiful country than cheetahs alone.

encounter cheetah in wild

There are many places where you can expect to see cheetahs in South Africa:

Kruger Park has a robust population of all kinds of wildlife, not just the big cats. While the cheetah is the least common cat in the park, the current population is around 200, making your chances of seeing them decent. The private reserves around the park are also top-notch for cheetah sightings, particularly the Sabi Sand private reserve

The Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve also offers exceptional game viewing as well as equally exceptional accommodations. The success of leopard and cheetah viewing within the Sabi Sands is legendary. You can also expect to spot elephants, lion, rhino, giraffe, zebra and a vast variety of antelope in their natural environment as well.

There are many private reserves in South Africa that have local cheetah populations or that have re-introduced cheetahs. Other possibilities include Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (on the border of SA and Botswana), and private reserves of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Another place to find a cheetah would include the densely populated Phinda Game Reserve. Cheetah populations are growing here, and sightings are fairly consistent.

If you can’t make it to any of the above, there are also several cheetah sanctuaries throughout southern Africa — just make sure they adhere to ethical practices before you visit.

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2. Botswana

Botswana is home to one of Africa’s most extraordinary places: The Okavango Delta. There is something elemental about this UNESCO World Heritage site: the rising and falling of its waters; the daily drama of its wildlife encounters; its soundtrack of lion roars, leopard barks and the crazy whoop of a running hyena.

Botswana has many reserves, parks and open plains where you can find cheetahs in their natural habitat.

encounter cheetah in wild

As mentioned above, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park on the border between South Africa and Botswana might just be the absolute best place to spot cheetahs in Africa. This is mainly due to the park’s high cheetah population and having the ideal terrain. The best time to go is when the springboks are having babies (cheetahs love to have them as a tasty snack).

The Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana’s Okavango Delta is also excellent for spotting cheetahs. The country’s Kalahari parks, including the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) are also good places for cheetah encounters. 

CKGR is rather remote and is also the second-largest game reserve in the world. This reserve is among the top places to see cheetahs in Africa. Most of the reserve is flat, making it easy to spot cheetahs in their natural habitat. The park is only accessible by 4×4, and it’s best that you have a bit of safari experience and come with all the gear you need.

In the Linyanti Region of Botswana, there are many large reserves including Kwando, Linyanti, and Selinda that all have high concentrations of wildlife. Head to the open plains in these reserves with a good guide and you’ll have a fantastic chance of spotting cheetahs chasing prey. Linyanti is just west of Chobe National Park, making it pretty easy to double up on multiple game drives.

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3. Kenya

Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve is without a doubt one of the best places to spot cheetahs in Africa. It’s also a place where the curious animal has been known to jump on top of safari vehicles!

encounter cheetah in wild

The park is home to the Mara Cheetah Project, which regularly tracks the movements of local cheetahs. The annual wildebeest migration is the best time to go in order to see cheetahs stalking the large amounts of prey that come through the area.

Cheetah sightings occur regularly at Masai Mara and also in surrounding conservancies, like Mara North and Naboisho. The open country of Tsavo East and Amboseli national parks are other good cheetah spotting places to keep in mind.

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4. Tanzania

Tanzania is home to the Serengeti – one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, along with The Nile River of Egypt, Sahara Desert (which traverses 11 countries), and the Okavango Delta of Botswana. It has deep significance to the heritage of the area and is famous the world over not just for its natural wonders but for its world-class accommodation facilities and safari tours.

cheetah in wild serengeti encounter

The Serengeti National Park is a fabulous cheetah habitat adjacent to Kenya’s Maasai Mara park. During migration times, cheetahs prowl the area, looking for a meal among the thousands of animals who trek through the park. The terrain in the Serengeti is ideal for spotting cheetahs due to the sparse savanna grass and open plains. The Ndutu Safari Lodge claims it is one of the best places in the Serengeti to spot them, and guests regularly record sightings there. The best time to go is around February and March, when the grass is short.

Despite the dense predator numbers of lions, leopards and wild dogs, Ruaha National Park and Tarangire are also good locations to seek out wild cheetahs on safari.

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5. Zambia

Kafue National Park in Zambia is excellent for cheetah sightings. As the oldest and largest park in Zambia, you can be sure there is going to be a lot of cheetahs and other wildlife to spot here!

cheetah in wild serengeti

The area is mostly flat with a few granite hills dotting the landscape, making scanning the area with your binoculars fairly easy. There is a high concentration of wildlife in the floodplains, and cheetahs regularly come into the area to chase them down.

Other possibilities for places to encounter cheetahs in the wild in Zambia include South Luangwa and Liuwa Plain national parks.

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6. Namibia

Namibia has the largest population of cheetahs in Africa. Many of them roam across the farmlands throughout the country, but one of the best places to encounter cheetahs in the wild of Namibia would be in the Etosha National Park.

encounter wild cheetahs

Etosha is quite a dry park, so going to the water hole will definitely reward you with some stunning wild animals to see, including cheetahs if you are lucky. Game animals tend to congregate around watering holes, and cheetahs follow the game. Other than that, stick to exploring the vast open plains and keep your binoculars handy!

Other places that offer great chances of seeing cheetahs in Namibia are the Okonjima and Erindi private reserves.

Okonjima is home to the Africat Foundation and is a significant rehabilitation center for cheetahs. Although it is not a safari destination, it is a wonderful stopover for anyone traveling by road to Etosha Park.

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Summary

The cheetah is not just the fastest land animal on the planet. It is also one of the most graceful. But due to their dwindling numbers, they can be hard to find: with less than 10 thousand individuals left in the wild, cheetahs are now Africa’s most endangered big cat.

Cheetahs are very unique among other big cats, with their big range of vocal sounds and non-retractable claws. There are far fewer cheetahs than there are lions and leopards in Africa, so finding them can require careful preparation.

Here’s a complete map of all the best spots to encounter cheetahs in the wild:

Did you enjoy this complete guide to wild cheetah encounters and want to read more about other big, wild cats? Check out our blogs where we write all about encounters with lions, leopards, lynx, and tigers!

For Safari and Trekking options have a look at our The Top 10 African Safari Parks in Africa, The best places to see Elephants or a trekking tour to the Mountain Gorillas in Central Africa on our blog. 

1 Response
  1. Ashleigh Heath

    That slo-mo video of the running cheetah had me gawking at my laptop screen! Absolutely magnificent creature!
    Also, 10m stride? How??

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