I remember reading as a child:

    1) Egyptians kept cheetahs for hunting and for pets,

    2) All cheetahs extant today are related as closely as brothers and sisters ... or "clones",

    3) It was the Egyptians' fault for inbreeding them to meet demand.

It turns out the first is absolutely true, the second is mostly true, the third is not true at all.

KV62, Tomb of Tutankhamun, Funerary Bed Post

Cheetahs as  Pets

I'd love to type out a passage of Herodotus, or Siculus, or Strabo ... or any primary source ... that talks about cheetahs ("panthers") specifically as pets.  I don't know of any.  Instead, I'll just post some artwork and you can decide.  To me, it appears that anyone, who could afford the 100% meat diet of a cheetah, had one.  Since most Egyptians had very little meat in their diet, this was probably self-restricting to only the wealthy.  Dogs and monkeys eat table scraps.  Cats, mongooses, and ibises feed themselves.

TT100, Mortuary Temple of Rekhmire, Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, Theban Necropolis

Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, Deir el Bahari

Ramesses II Temple of Beit el Wali, moved south of Aswan Dam

Chapel of Hathor, Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, Deir el Bahari

TT100, Mortuary Temple of Rekhmire, Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, Theban Necropolis

Ramesses II Temple of Beit el Wali, moved south of Aswan Dam

Cheetah DNA

"Our investigations of the past five years suggest that the species has somehow lost its genetic variation. As a result of intensive inbreeding generations ago, each cheetah appears to be nearly identical with every other cheetah. ... inbreeding has left the cheetah with traits that are as maladaptive as its lithe construction is adaptive. The species is vulnerable to disease and has an
infant mortality rate that is estimated to be as high as 70 percent in some game preserves."

The researchers did some skin graft tests, exchanging skin from captive "non-related" cheetahs.

"Once again the cheetahs demonstrated their genetic uniformity. Remarkably, all allografts were accepted and indeed were indistinguishable from the autografts throughout the 10-to-12-day period. Three of the allografts did undergo slow rejection later,
but several of the grafts persisted for at least 78 days, by which time they appeared to blend in with the recipient's own skin."

"As a result the number of possible combinations at the class I sublocus on one chromosome in humans is enormous (more
than 12^3), and the chance of any two individuals having the same combination is slim (less than one in 10,000)."


O'Brien, Stephen J., David E. Wildt and Mitchell Bush, The Cheetah in Genetic Peril, Scientific American, Vol. 254, No. 5 (May 1986), pp. 84-95 

Was it the Egyptians' Fault?

They couldn't possibly be the cause of inbreeding.  Captive breeding has only been successful in the 20th century.

"Indeed, the cheetah had a history of failure to breed in captivity dating back at least to the time of Akbar the Great, a 16th-century ruler in India. (Akbar, who had 1,000 cheetahs, was one of a long line of regal potentates on three continents who kept cheetahs
as hunters and status symbols.) According to chronicles written by Akbar's son, the ruler had resorted to extreme efforts to promote breeding, including giving his regal specimens the run of the palace gardens. Even so, only a single litter was ever produced and
it was the sole recorded litter born to captive cheetahs until cubs were born at the Philadelphia Zoo in 1956. Since 1956 a mere handful of breeding programs have been successful, and only from 10 to 15 percent of the sexually mature cheetahs caught in
the wild have reproduced in captivity. Such low fecundity is often a consequence of unsuccessful mating attempts, but even after successful matings the cheetah has a low conception rate compared with that of other zoobred species, and about 30 percent of the cubs born in captivity die before the age of six months."

--- O'Brien, et al.

To date, no one has been able to successfully breed cheetahs on any scale.  So what happened?

"...the most plausible [hypothesis], is that at some point in the past the species went through an extreme population bottleneck: a severe population reduction. This was followed by inbreeding, which diminished the gene pool by the chance loss of alleles.

How extreme would a bottleneck have to be to produce a population with zero percent enzyme variation and with identity at the MHC? What caused the bottleneck in the cheetah populations and when did it occur?  Theory and practice demonstrate that a population that passes through a bottleneck of a mere seven individuals can still retain about 95 percent of its original genetic variation; it can retain that variety if the survivors expand their numbers quickly and geometrically. (Slow expansion in a small population increases the likelihood that different gene types will disappear.) We therefore suspect that at least once and perhaps several times in the past the cheetah's forerunner populations must have dropped to a very few individuals, escaping extinction by a
whisker; it is also possible that the surviving cheetahs never managed to expand their numbers rapidly. Just why the cheetah population would have dwindled so severely is anyone's guess. The possibilities range from climatic catastrophe to viral or bacterial
plagues to destruction of the habitat or outright killing by humans.


The timing of the first bottleneck, like the degree and cause, is difficult to determine. A prime candidate is the time between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, at the end of the geologic epoch known as the late Pleistocene.

... we cannot exclude the possibility that a more recent crisis is responsible for the cheetah's vulnerability today, and we hope our ongoing studies will provide more insight into the animal's past history."

--- O'Brien et al.

A major extinction event that knocked down four separate species to one, low fecundity, high infant mortality.  It's a wonder there's 12,000-20,000 alive in the wild today (mainly Africa, only ~200 in the Middle East) ... but there's more.  Every single cheetah pictured by the Egyptians (plus their skins used by priests), and all the cheetah's which appear in royal paintings all over Asia and Europe up until recent times ... were wild captures.

"Cheetahs were widely popular in Asia, particularly as hunting animals. During the 16th century, Akbar the Great of the Mughal Empire (covering the Indian subcontinent) used cheetahs to hunt antelope ... and owned as many as 1000 at a time and over 9000 in total, during his 49-year reign ...

... they were highly present in Egyptian culture. In Asia, where they were often favored by leaders and royalty of multiple nations, the use of cheetahs as hunting animals was particularly pronounced. In western Europe, they fulfilled similar roles to a lesser extent. Although there are areas today where the cheetah still plays a role in culture and is treated as a pet ..."

--- Pang, Benison, and Laurie Marker, History of Cheetah-Human Relationship, Cheetahs in Biology and Conservation, 2018

It gets worse for the poor cheetahs.  I won't go into here.  They don't breed in captivity, they don't breed well in the wild, and although there's an international ban on cheetah trade, cubs are still smuggled out of the Horn of Africa to Middle East buyers.  One in six survives.  You don't have to Google very hard to find this.


© 2020 by Marian Marion Kebab