Learn about the evolution and migration of the species, its relationship with man throughout history, and its population and ranges.

History of the Cheetah

The evolution and history of the cheetah are just as remarkable and interesting as the species itself. Its evolution goes back to nearly 7 million years ago in time, and spanned across almost all the continents on the planet. Its history with human interactions goes as far back as to 32000 BCE, and the cheetah has been a symbol of significant meaning in different civilizations and cultures across thousands of years of human history. Even up to this day, the cheetah continues to be considered as a spiritual animal that manifests as a symbol of a multitude of positive characteristics, such as adaptability, persistence, and focus.

History of the Cheetah


Although many would think the cheetah had originated on the continent of Africa, the oldest fossils place cheetahs in North America in what is now Texas, Nevada and Wyoming. Cheetahs were common throughout Asia, Africa, Europe and North America until the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, when massive climatic changes caused large numbers of mammals to disappear.

Evolution of Cats

Which big cat is the most related to the cheetah?

It is easy to think that the closest relative to the cheetah among the big cats is the leopard, given the close resemblance to their appearances. However, the cheetah is actually most closely related to the North American cougar (puma) (Puma concolor) and the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) that roams through Central to South America. Together, these three species form the Puma lineage, one of the eight lineages of the Felidae family.

Big Cats

Felidae Family Tree

The evolution of the Felidae cat family began about 25 million years ago. Through time, the ancestors of the cat family slowly evolved into eight main lineages, with each lineage representing a subset of the Felidae cat family that are the most related genetically.

Cheetah Evolution

Learn about the evolution and migration of the cheetah.

Cheetah and Man

The history of cheetah-human relationship goes back in millennia, and archeological artifacts uncovered throughout the world suggest that human interactions with the species goes hand in hand with its migration and evolution. The relationship between cheetahs and us have been both profound and complex, as the species have been revered, utilized, displayed, and exploited throughout human history.

Relationships with Man

Traditional African healers and witchdoctors used cheetah foot bones in spiritualistic rituals to symbolize fleet-footedness and speed. They used bones from a wide variety of animals and techniques varied from tribe to tribe. Objects represented a person, a thing or mood from the past, present or future, and are known as Divinatory sets.

During the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, the cheetah was considered a goddess named "Mafdet". Pharaohs kept cheetahs as close companions, symbolic of Mafdet's protection of the royal throne.

The San of Southern Africa ate cheetah meat as a symbol for speed, but it was not a main food in their diet.

Kings wore cheetah skins for dignity. Trade in cheetah skin only started after European explorers began requesting them.

Mafdet’s head on the bed where the mummy is placed.

Mafdet’s head on the bed where the mummy is placed.

Cheetahs In Sports

A painting depicting a cheetah gifted to the English King George III by the Tippoo Sultan in 1799.

A painting depicting a cheetah gifted to the English King George III by the Tippoo Sultan in 1799.

In c1700 BC, the Egyptians were the first to tame cheetahs. They admired the cheetah for its speed, hunting ability and beauty. They honored cheetahs as symbols of royalty and prestige.

The swiftest animal on earth became a cherished hunting companion of Pharaohs and royalty throughout Europe, Asia and India. Until the early 1900s, ownership of cheetahs was as important to these nobles as their love for gold. Cheetahs hunt by sight so they excelled in the sport known as "coursing". Hunts organized by royalty and nobles were for the challenge of sport, not for food. Hunts represented power and prestige.

By the 1500s the popularity of the cheetah as a hunting companion rivaled that of the dog. Cheetahs, the most easily tamed of the big cats, were caught, tamed and trained. Adults were used because cubs had not learned how to hunt. Tamed cheetahs formed a strong bond with their keepers.

Each cheetah rode to the hunt by horseback or on a cart. Its eyes were coved with a hood and uncovered when prey were sighted. The cat was released to chase down the prey then rewarded with meat fed from a wooden spoon.

Although cherished, pampered cheetahs were loved to near extinction and taken from the wild in great numbers. By the early 1900s, India and Iran were importing African cheetahs for the sport of "coursing", as their own wild population became too small.

Cheetahs In Art

Sumerians (Iraqi ancestors) were the first to use cheetahs in art.

The cheetah and leopard have often been mistaken for each other. Cheetahs in early art were frequently called "panther" or "hunting leopard". Early artists called the true leopard "pardus" and described it as a cross between a cheetah (panther), and the lion (leo).

Middle Age and Renaissance artists began drawing cheetahs and other animals more life-like. During this time of scientific exploration, detailed descriptions of animals provided incentive for reality in art. Artists included cheetahs more often in their paintings as the trade in live animals increased.

Artists always pictured cheetahs as animals of speed and royalty.

Giuliano de’ Medici depicted with a cheetah behind him on horseback. Painting by Benozzo Gozzoli.

Giuliano de’ Medici depicted with a cheetah behind him on horseback. Painting by Benozzo Gozzoli.

Range and Population

A combination of factors such as game hunting, retaliatory killing, habitat encroachment have caused the sharp decline of the global cheetah population over the last century, and driven the species out of much of their historical range. One of the last strongholds of the species today remain in southern Africa, spanning over Namibia and Botswana, which together holds two thirds of the species' population.

Namibia - Cheetah Capital of the World


Cheetah Capital of the World

Namibia has the world's largest cheetah population. Approximately 3000 cheetahs share the land with humans, livestock, and wildlife.

Today, the status of the Namibian cheetah is stabilizing. During the 1980s, the population of Namibian cheetahs declined by half. In the 10-year period, nearly 7,000 cheetahs were removed from the wild.

In most countries where cheetahs live, their numbers have been reduced to critical levels. The cheetah's survival worldwide is in human hands.

of the world's wild cheetahs live in Namibia
Cheetah distribution and population density in Namibia.

Cheetah distribution and population density in Namibia.


Hope for the Future

The greatest hope for the cheetah's survival lies in the pristine countryside of Namibia. Nearly 1000 Namibian farmers control the fate of the country's cheetahs and the land they live.

of Namibia's cheetahs live on communal and commercial livestock and game farms

The Road to Extinction

Cheetah evolution and extinction

The Road to Extinction?


World development, industrialization, automobiles, and airplanes...

Through the 1900s, man's inventions seemed limitless, yet there is nothing man-made that rivals the speed and efficiency of the cheetah.

Scientists classified the cheetah as Acinonyx jubatus, yet nobles still referred to it as the "hunting leopard". By the end of the 1800s, cheetahs were a rarity in Asia Minor and Arabia because of their use in the sport of "coursing".

Although it appeared that the cheetahs had a large range, their numbers within that range existed in small pockets. Cheetahs, farmers and their livestock all preferred open grasslands for their habitat. Increasing agricultural development and new settlements played havoc with remaining cheetah populations.

Cheetah Population from 1900 to Present

Pre 1900
Pre 1900


Slide the timeline to see how the cheetah population changes.

Where Did the Cheetah Go?


As human population grew, the amount of land devoted to livestock farming steadily increased. Livestock filled the open land where cheetahs roamed. Natural prey became scarce. Farmers kill other large predators. Although game reserves protected them, cheetahs could not compete against hyenas and lions. Farmlands offered cheetahs a safe haven, but they sometimes killed livestock.

Farmers saw cheetahs more frequently and thought their numbers had increased. Cheetahs took the blame for most predator-related livestock losses. Farmers killed cheetahs by the thousands as pests or to sell their skins to the fur trade.

By 1975, researches realized that the cheetah was in trouble. CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) placed the cheetah on Appendix I, making international trade in live cheetah or cheetah products illegal. Local laws supported CITES in many countries where cheetahs still lived. Researchers began looking for ways to encourage the growth of cheetah populations through land management practices.

Click on the map above see the cheetah's range.
< 7,500
Cheetahs were found in 31 populations in 23 African countries
< 50
Asiatic cheetahs left in Iran