The Elvis of Cheetahs

About the Author

Heading up AWF’s membership desk, Erin Keyes amassed quite a bit of knowledge about Africa’s wildlife and unique wild lands. As an expert on AWF’s membership benefits and programs, Erin wrote articles to share what she had learned and to give AWF supporters another forum for asking questions about… More

“I was recently doing research on cheetahs for school and my mother told me there is a breed of cheetah that actually has stripes. Please tell my mother that there is only one type of cheetah- the one with spots.”

— Lucas, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Cheetahs with stripes? No way! Yes way. There is, indeed, a breed of cheetah with stripes and that breed is known as the King Cheetah.

King cheetah

The King Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a very rare breed of cheetah found only in southern Africa. The King Cheetah was first found in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in 1926 and was at first thought to be a separate species from the usual spotted cheetah. Over time, due to lack of evidence that the King Cheetah is an altogether separate species, scientists retracted their earlier declarations and agreed that the King Cheetah is not a separate species but rather a variation of the usual spotted cheetah.

Boasting what may be the most beautifully unusual coat in the Big Cat family, the King Cheetah’s coat features large, blotchy spots and (usually) three distinctive stripes along the back, which at first glance makes the King Cheetah look kind of like a walking Rorschach test. That being said, the question remains: How in the world did these cheetahs get stripes? For a brief moment, let’s go back to our high school biology class. Remember the teacher’s talk about dominant and recessive genes/traits? Well, the striped pattern that gives the King Cheetah its distinctive look is a recessive trait that only appears in two cheetahs that contain this trait. When the cheetahs mate, in some cubs born, this recessive trait becomes the dominant trait and-voila!- a King Cheetah is born.

In simpler terms, being a King Cheetah is the same as being a person with blue eyes in an entire family of people with brown eyes. It is entirely possible for two usual spotted cheetahs to have liters of cubs all spotted, all King or a mixture of both. Whether or not a cheetah cub will be born a King or the usual spotted cheetah completely depends on which way Mother Nature decides to swing her pendulum.

Cheetah racing stripes AWF View original photo here.

Did You Know…?

  • Early scientists were so taken aback at finding a cheetah with such differently shaped spots and stripes, the King Cheetah was originally thought to be a cheetah-leopard hybrid.
  • The King Cheetah is so rare its world population is just under 30 individual cheetahs, with merely a possible 10 living in the wild scattered throughout Zimbabwe and South Africa.
  • The best place to find King Cheetahs is at the DeWildt Cheetah Centre in Pretoria, South Africa. The DeWildt Cheetah Centre has been so successful in breeding the King Cheetah that it is often called ‘The DeWildt Cheetah’.