October 8, 2020
The Cheetah’s Speed Limit
- as seen by -Luke Hunter
A young cheetah gazes at a speed sign in South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve. As an adult, his top speed will easily double the nearly 25 mph (40 km/h) limit meant for local traffic. By some accounts, it will come close to trebling it – 68 to 74.5 mph (110 to 120 km/h) is often cited as the cheetah’s top speed.
In fact, we still don’t know precisely the maximum speed the cheetah can reach. When I took this photo in 1993, the most accurate recording was one made in 1965. A tame female in Kenya had been trained to run a 200m straight course behind a Land Rover (with a piece of meat on the back as an inducement). She was timed with a handheld stopwatch over three, flat-out attempts, with a half-hour rest in between. The average of her three sprints – 63.7 mph (102.5 km/h) – is, even today, the highest recorded speed attained by a land mammal.
Since then, modern technology has refined the estimate and it is surprisingly consistent. In 2015, a cheetah from the Cincinnati Zoo named Sarah reached 61 mph/h (98.2 km) over 100m. Wild cheetahs in Botswana fitted with GPS collars containing highly sensitive motion sensors never exceeded 58 mph (93 km/h). And interestingly, most hunts were much slower, with an average top speed of 33 mph (53.7 km/h). The Botswana cheetahs lived in wooded savanna habitat where they hunted mainly impalas and warthogs; thick vegetation meant they weren’t able (and didn’t need to) reach the top speed possible for the species.
For me, that is still an open question. Seeing a cheetah at full sprint on the open grasslands of East Africa is so spectacular, so utterly breathtaking, that it is not hard to imagine it exceeds 68 mph (110 km/h). I think that, one day, a clever researcher with persistence and the right tech will reveal what the magnificent cheetah is actually capable of.