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King Cheetah

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Large striped Cat

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of South Africa, once thought 
to be a separate species of cheetah.

Etymology: After the regal splendor of its coat.

Scientific names: Acinonyx rex, proposed by 
Reginald Pocock in 1927; modified later to A. 
jubatus var. rex.

Variant names: Mazoe leopard, Nsui-fisi 
(from the Swahili/Bantu chui-fisi, “leopardhyena”), 
Rhodesian cheetah.

Physical description: Like the common cheetah 
but with a thicker, silky coat. Marked with 
slightly raised black stripes on the spine and 
dark blotches on a cream-colored background. 
A more pronounced mane. Fully ringed tail. 
King cheetah variants are found in the litters of 
normal cheetahs.

Behavior: Nocturnal, as opposed to the traditional 
cheetah preference for daytime hunting.

Habitat: Forests, whereas the cheetah prefers 
open country, from desert to dry savanna. 
Distribution: Zimbabwe; Botswana; Mozambique; 
Northern Province, South Africa. There 
is also a report of a single skin recovered from 
Burkina Faso in West Africa.

Significant sightings: First brought to scientific 
attention in 1926 when A. C. Cooper noticed 
an unusual skin in Harare’s Queen Victoria 
Memorial Library and Museum. Reginald 
Pocock identified it as a cheetah’s but with a 
vastly different coat pattern. At least twenty-one 
other skins were obtained through 1974.

The first King cheetah born in captivity was 
born to normally marked parents in 1981 at the 
Seaview Game Park in Port Elizabeth, South 
Africa. The DeWildt Cheetah and Wildlife 
Centre in North-West Province, South Africa, 
obtained twelve live King cheetah specimens between 
1981 and 1987, three of them cubs born 
from their breeding program.

Possible explanations: 
(1) Now generally seen as a single-locus 
genetic morph of the common Cheetah 
(Acinonyx jubatus). Lena Bottriell considers 
it to be an instance of evolution in the 
making: the modified, striped coat provides 
better camouflage as the cheetah adapts to 
night hunting in dense forests. If the King 
cheetahs are separated reproductively from 
the rest of the cheetah population for an 
appropriate amount of time, they may 
actually become a distinct species. 
(2) By contrast, King cheetahs may 
represent a genetic throwback to the time 
when Africa was colder and more forested.

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