A number of previously undescribed animals could have come to the attention of zoologists a lot sooner had they paid more attention to historical and ancient iconography, which contain accurate representations of species such as Grévy’s zebra, the giraffe-necked gazelle, and even the giant panda, dating back centuries before these animals’ official scientific discovery. Now, another exciting and highly unexpected example may be awaiting confirmation, featuring one of the world’s most iconic and exotic wild cats – the king cheetah.
Once upon a time, cheetahs were comfortingly predictable in overall appearance. Whether they came from Africa or Asia, their pale yellow fur was always patterned with black polka dots. End of story – until 1926, when a remarkable pelt came to light in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) – originating from a strange, unidentified cat trapped at Macheke, and which locals claimed was a bizarre beast known to them as the nsui-fisi or hyaena-leopard. Hitherto dismissed by science as a native myth, this elusive creature supposedly resembled a big cat in overall shape but was patterned with the bold black striping of a hyaena – a description that perfectly matched the mysterious pelt from Macheke. Ornately adorned with spectacular stripes, swirls, and blotches, a series of heavy rings around the tail, and bold longitudinal stripes running along the entire length of the cat’s back, as well as sporting an exceptionally profuse mane on its neck, it was shown by zoological examination to be a cheetah pelt, but dramatically different in appearance from the familiar polka-dot variety hitherto known.
Combining its regal appearance with its leonine mane, British Museum (Natural History) zoologist Reginald I Pocock designated the Macheke pelt as the type specimen of a brand-new species, which in 1927 he formally christened Acinonyx rex – the king cheetah. In subsequent years, other king cheetah skins were obtained in Zimbabwe and also in neighbouring South Africa and Botswana, but these showed great variation, with some clearly intermediate between the Macheke specimen and normal spotted cheetahs. Consequently, the king cheetah was eventually downgraded in taxonomic status from a valid species in its own right to a mere variety of the spotted cheetah, becoming Acinonyx jubatus var. rex.
This demotion was fully vindicated in 1986 when a study by cheetah researchers Dr RJ van Aarde and Ann van Dyck revealed that the king cheetah’s striped pelage was due to a single gene allele (form) – specifically, a recessive mutant allele probably directly equivalent to the allele responsible for the blotched tabby coat pattern in the domestic cat. Moreover, king cheetahs have nowadays even been bred in captivity from normal spotted parents, confirming that it is not a separate species.
Taxonomic considerations aside, however, what makes the king cheetah so memorable in addition to its incredibly beautiful coat is its extremely limited distribution. Many freak mutations of coat colour or patterning in mammals are spontaneous, i.e. they can arise abruptly in any population of a given species, regardless of geographical location. Yet whereas the typical spotted cheetah occurs in southern, eastern, central, northern, and western Africa, king cheetahs have never been reported conclusively outside southern Africa – except for a single West African specimen shot in 1988 by a poacher in Burkina Faso’s Singou Total Fauna Reserve. Today, moreover, even normal cheetahs are rare in West Africa, and are rarer still outside Africa – but this was not always the case.
The cheetah once existed in the Middle East and southwest Asia too, most notably in India, where it was commonly used as a hunting beast by the Mughal (Mogul) emperors during the 16th to 19th centuries. Today, conversely, this once-abundant Asian subspecies, Acinonyx jubatus venaticus, is known to survive only in Iran and possibly also Pakistan (the last three Indian specimens were shot in 1947), with probably fewer than 100 specimens alive. In addition, there are a few highly elusive small-spotted cheetahs reported from Egypt’s Qattara region, whose exact taxonomic identity remains uncertain.
Yet in view of spontaneous mutations (explaining the lone West African king cheetah), could it be that back in the centuries when Asian cheetahs were still very common, especially in India, a striped specimen was born there from time to time? Until now, there has never been any evidence for the erstwhile existence of Asian king cheetahs, but that may soon change – thanks to the following potentially significant information. In October 2010, a cryptozoological colleague (who has asked to remain anonymous until he has completed his field investigations) was discussing cheetahs with me online when he casually mentioned that his Asian ancestors used to keep king cheetahs along with normal cheetahs, and that they were housed in specially constructed kennels and used for hunting game. When I pointed out that king cheetahs have never been recorded from anywhere in Asia, my friend very politely but firmly disagreed with me, stating:
“I have seen paintings of the Mughal Emperors on hunting excursions being led by Cheetah and King Cheetah. The Cheetahs were used to lead their masters to big game. What is strange is that some of these beautiful animals are depicted in these paintings as having beautiful coats decorated with ornate patterning of blotches, swirls, bars, longitudinal stripes down its back and a thick banding around its tail, not sure about the mane though. I am absolutely certain it wasn’t an Asian Cheetah.”
Needless to say, I was very startled and excited to read this, bearing in mind that my friend had provided a perfect description of a bona fide king cheetah. So I asked him if he could send me any specific details concerning the paintings in question, and when or where he saw them. He then provided me with the following tantalising recollections:
“[It was in] 1995, I was 11 years old, this was at Dubai airport, on route from Pakistan. I asked the shopkeeper and he told me that it was a depiction of the Mughal emperors and their cheetahs, I was particularly captivated by the cheetah at the centre of the image. It had as I described earlier stripes, swirls and was clearly different from the other cheetahs in the painting. Last year, I found a similar image on Wikipeda. They have since taken it down… I’ve tried googling it, but to no avail.”
I’ve spent several hours in Dubai International Airport on a number of occasions, and can well recall shops there selling all manner of artwork. Having said that, I’ve never yet seen anything depicting a king cheetah-like cat, but it is an extremely big airport, with an enormous and very rapid turnover of stock. However, there is still hope that iconographical evidence supporting the onetime existence of Asian king cheetahs may yet turn up. Spurred on by the realisation of just how significant his sightings of the above-noted paintings may be, my friend is keen to pursue the matter further, at a promising source:
“I can try and see what I can find at the local art bazaars and antique stalls. There are plenty in Islamabad alone, and the Sindh area has plenty of art stalls selling paintings, copies of paintings and antiques from the Mughal era.”
I wish him success, and await with interest any news – and, in particular, any paintings! – he may obtain.
Certainly, the cheetah has a well-attested history for yielding unexpected, aberrant variations upon the normal polka-dotted theme. In 1877, for example, a decidedly bizarre cheetah was exhibited alive at London Zoo, having been captured in Beaufort West, South Africa. Its fur was brown instead of pale yellow, its spots were dark red instead of black, it lacked the normal cheetah’s familiar pair of facial ‘tear’ stripes, and its fur was so fluffy that it became known as the woolly cheetah, and was formally classed as a separate species by Zoological Society of London secretary Philip L Sclater, who duly dubbed it Felis [=Acinonyx] lanea. During the next few years, two other specimens were documented, both from Beaufort West again, but none has ever been reported since. Today, this controversial mystery cat is deemed to have been either an erythristic (freak red) variety or (less likely) a partially albinistic variety of the normal cheetah species.
At least two melanistic (all-black) cheetahs have also been reported. One was sighted in 1925 by HF Stoneham in Kenya’s Trans-Nzoia District, the other in Zambia by well-respected naturalist and author Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, who observed it in the company of a normal spotted cheetah.
In 1921, six years before he examined the first scientifically recorded king cheetah skin, Pocock had documented a particularly strange cheetah pelt that even today remains unique, wholly unlike any other specimen recorded before or since. Shot in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) by Lt Col WT Gregg of the King’s African Rifles, its mane was remarkably sparse and its spots exceptionally small, little more than speckles and freckles.
Interestingly, another sizeable African cat that normally has large spots, the serval Leptailurus serval, occasionally gives rise to a freak non-taxonomic variety in which the spots are mere speckles, and sometimes so small as to give the impression that the cat is unspotted. This speckled variety of serval, once erroneously thought to be a separate species, is known as the servaline. So I hereby propose that the cheetah counterpart documented by Pocock in 1921 should be officially termed a cheetaline.
Undoubtedly the most exotic cheetah of all, however, rivalling even the king cheetah itself in terms of sheer unadulterated beauty, must surely have been the extraordinary specimen brought by Raja Bir Singh Deo in 1608 to the Mughal emperor-naturalist Jahangir (ruled 1605–1627) at Agra. For according to Jahangir’s own documented description of it, this wonderful animal had bluish-white fur and blue spots! Some researchers have suggested that perhaps this spectacular felid was not a cheetah at all, but a snow leopard Uncia uncia. However, the short-limbed snow leopard bears scant resemblance to the long-limbed cheetah form, and Jahangir was a very experienced naturalist who was hardly likely to confuse these two very different cats. In reality, his blue-spotted white cheetah was most probably a partial (chinchilla) albino.
It is a delicious irony, given the existence of all of these fully confirmed genetic mutants, that the cheetah actually exhibits a conspicuously low overall degree of genetic variation – much lower, for instance, than that of the lion, tiger, or leopard. Nevertheless, it clearly exhibits sufficient morphologically expressed genetic variation to throw up a number of surprises from time to time. And perhaps these also include a king cheetah or two in Mughal India. Alternatively, it may be that they were simply brought from Africa to India by travelling merchants or explorers rather than arising there by spontaneous mutation. Whatever their origin, if the former existence of king cheetahs in Mughal India has indeed been portrayed in paintings, and any of these paintings can be uncovered, this will be a momentous cryptozoological discovery – marking a most unexpected return of the king to its spotted predecessors’ Asian homeland of long ago.