A king cheetah is a normal cheetah with a slight coat mutation. They are distinguished by having long black stripes down their spines and splotches instead of spots on their flanks. There is an estimated world population of just 50 king cheetahs. Most of these have been bred in captivity in the Transvaal region of South Africa.
Observations of the king cheetah were rare and only began in the first half of the 20th century. Early finds were pelts and few have been spotted in the wild. In 1927, Reginald Innes Pocock postulated that king cheetahs were in fact a sub-species of cheetah. Others believed that king cheetahs were the result of breeding with leopards. Pocock later in 1939 retracted his belief that the king cheetah was a sub-species.
The origin of king cheetahs was not established until 1981, when the de Wildts cheetah and wildlife center bred a pair of king cheetahs in captivity from normal cheetahs. Two sister cheetahs were impregnated by the same male. They bore large litters; one of each litter was a king cheetah cub. It is now believed that king cheetahs are the result of a recessive gene found in a few cheetahs in the northern Transvaal area of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
Cheetahs are built more like greyhounds than big cats and can reach speeds of 75 miles an hour (120 km an hour). They are less aggressive than other big cats and can be tamed fairly easily. All cheetahs are carnivores and tend to hunt their prey. They use their speed over a short distance to run down prey such as gazelles, impala and springboks.
Once a prey has been caught, a cheetah will suffocate it by clamping its jaws around its neck. They are day hunters in order to avoid competition from larger hunters such as hyenas and lions. Cheetahs understand that their speed is everything, and so they will not fight to protect their catch, as any injury could be life-threatening.
Modern cheetahs including the king cheetah face a reproductive problem. Cheetahs have a low sperm count and a high infant mortality rate. The cheetah gene pool bottlenecked during the last Ice Age, leaving the modern population almost completely identical genetically. Curiously, the lack of genetic diversity has not led to typical gene mutations as seen when other small animal populations inbreed.