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Originating from a place of myths and legends, the story of the King Cheetah is a fascinating one. 
Mystery and unknowns have long shrouded the animal's existence. 
Yet what is certain is that King Cheetahs are rare, elusive and utterly intriguing, and still out there.

History of the King Cheetah

Variously known as Rhodesian Cheetah, Royal Cheetah, Cooper's Cheetah - in a span of 100 or so years some 60 specimens of this magnificent striped, blotched cheetah are officially on record - all with the same uniformity and consistency in pattern, no in-betweens, no intermediates.  And only in Africa, despite cheetah's wide historic range across continents.

On through early to mid-late 1800s tales reached European adventurers, hunters of a legend from Manicaland - an area still bridging far eastern Zimbabwe and west Mozambique -  of an animal known to locals as nsui-fisi, immortalised by Arthur Conan Doyle in his reminiscences as a bush medic. This "leopard-hyaena" would come in the night when the kraals were asleep and kill sheep and a leopard, but taller, with stripes, and a track showing the imprint of claws like hyaena.  Or cheetah, of course.

1926: Major Alan Cooper, in charge of the Queen Victoria Memorial Library and Museum in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, simultaneously sends photos of a curious striped felid skin to The Field magazine and British Museum of Natural History, as the latter is styled. Trapped, and sent to him, it's unlike anything he knows or has seen, and opines it's a hybrid with characteristics of leopard and cheetah; BM's Reginald Innes Pocock - authority of the day on felids - disagrees, and from the photo judges it's an aberrant leopard, leopards known to be liable to extra variation in the matter of coat pattern. 

1927: Cooper disagrees in turn. He promptly sends the skin to Pocock - with news of a further 4 alike pelts - and in due course nsui-fisi emerges as the striped cheetah of southern Africa, now recognised by science but with a new name: wearing a coat reminiscent of ermine, the King or Royal Cheetah has arrived, described as a new species Acinonyx rex in February.  While Cooper's notion of a hybrid leopard-cheetah is untenable - leopards kill and eat cheetahs - nsui-fisi as a hybrid leopard-hyaena (Cooper unwittingly refers to as "Mazoe Leopard") is equally untenable.

1929: King Cheetah is next given the commanding recognition of being upscaled to full generic status as the only species in a completely new genus Paracinonyx - specifically Paracinonyx rex - by polymath, visionary, paleoanthropologist, paleontologist, taxonomist, Prof. of Zoology, winner of prestigious Széchenyi Prize, Miklos Kretzoi, who considers King Cheetah a possible new race developing on a par with common spotted cheetah.  Beneficial mutations serve as raw material for evolution, and here is what Kretzoi considers a beneficial mutation.  

Kretzoi died in 2005, never retracting his classification of King Cheetah in a genus of its own.

Pocock, seemingly prevailed upon by others, retracted his classification in 1939.    

1939-1974: so follows a 30 year hiatus of supposed and recorded sightings one can't verify through sheer lack of data; skins claimed collected, lost; most extraordinarily, a plausible report of a "colony" of striped cheetah, upwards of 20, in the heartland of nsui-fisi - Manicaland - is observed by a mining engineer and his wife over a period of time, but not ever photographed, a skin of one, killed by villagers, is handed to the local District Commissioner, but is not seen again.  

1974:  A live wild King Cheetah is photographed for the first time in a stunning series of stills that see it arise from reclining relaxedly in among long grass and slowly, nonchalantly strolling away toward a network of scrubland where its "dismembering colouration" - as found with giraffe, zebra and any number of heavily patterned animals - gradually camouflages it as the King Cheetah, glancing back now and then at the photographer it appears to know is there, merges slowly into a weave of scrubby vegetation to a point it'd be missed altogether if one hadn't been following its  progress. This is Kruger National Park where authorities claim King Cheetah was previously never a feature.  Rewind to 1940 and a hardback publication Our South African National Parks edited by its Warden Col. Stevenson-Hamilton - where on page 70 therein representing KNP's cheetahs is depicted, not spotted cheetah, but King Cheetah: curiously Cape Town Museum's mount, here displayed deceptively in an outdoor bush setting looking just like a KC photographed in KNP (!)   

1977: After travelling through Asia and finding zero evidence (let alone knowledge) of striped cheetah occurring where cheetah had in India, Russian steppes or Western Asia - one day on a chance visit to London's British Museum of Natural History, as still styled, Paul Bottriell and Léna Godsall Bottriell are thrilled to find not just knowledge at last of King Cheetah, but are invited there and then up to view the 2 King Cheetah specimens held in the museum collections, one obtained for Lord Rothschild, and later bequeathed to NHM London.  Officials also warmly share what data they have: records of further KC material, 8 in number, with confirmatory photos; one is considered "lost", another destroyed; others of questionable provenance; there are "visual" records that have been mentioned over time, some credible, some not; breakthrough 1974 photos, and the very latest rumours of King Cheetah in Tuli Block eastern Botswana where it borders Zimbabwe and far NW South Africa.  

Paul had been captivated by King Cheetah since his Rhodesian boyhood and the compelling remark about King Cheetah being "neither lion, leopard, nor cheetah" by an official who'd taken him under his wing at the museum where the holotype skin was housed into the 1950s, until Cooper orders it destroyed due to it apparently 'disintegrating'.  Offered all assistance with the data London has, the decision is made to undertake a field expedition to southern Africa to first and foremost confirm King Cheetah is still extant in the wild: despite the 1974 photo and unquestioning evidence of existing skins, King Cheetah as "myth" still holds sway, with many of the opinion it is all fake.  

1978-1979: The King Cheetah Expedition begins the night before departure with a Launch on  BBC TV's Nationwide - Paul and Léna introduced to the British public with one of their King Cheetah Expedition Logo-ed Land-Rovers hoisted up into London's White City Studios.  Having gained serious sponsors already, the project will go on to capture the attention of the world's media; a TV network covertly tracks its fieldwork movements through southern Africa; many newspaper articles appear, and TV and radio interviews; Paul and Léna double the number of KC specimens collected; locate "lost" specimens; prove a certain material record is not KC, instead wastefully at least 5 serval skins made into a coat; track down the only authentic King Cheetah skull known; submit guard hairs from several King Cheetah skins for forensic analysis to South Africa's Institute of Medical Research with guard hairs of spotted cheetahs, regular leopards, black, ginger leopard, with the shock result the cuticular scale pattern on KC hair shafts doesn't match spotted cheetah's "mosaic"......but the neat "petal" leaf-like pattern of the leopards - micro photos attesting a result that's never answered or challenged; a first of its kind balloon search over Kruger Park, first ever undertaken over the park, given official go-ahead by KNP Board on Paul and Léna's sighting one afternoon a long-legged, erect head, lithe form of a cheetah looking back at them from across a river, and 2 pairs of binoculars revealing a King Cheetah; an inspired "Help the king Cheetah Expedition in its Search"  leaflet campaign aimed at Park visitors with the 1974 photo and a map to mark real or suspected sightings accompanies the balloon search, used in tandem with CB radios the public widely use, one link-up reaching an incredulous farmer in far-off Queensland Australia who after the initial surprise wonders if Paul and Léna can fossick out their mysterious Marsupial Cat; now no longer Paul and Léna working alone out of the Zebra Pen - a small yet respectful entourage of journalists, cameramen, a radio crew, a TV crew, game rangers, tourists is added, sightings are reported, media appearances of Paul and Léna and balloon crew ensue, including those beamed out worldwide by Agence France Presse, BBC World Service, and Voice of America, VOA; there emerges more genuine photos and film footage of King Cheetahs previously undisclosed; renowned artist Paul Bosman creates his incomparable painting of King Cheetah inspired by the Expedition, and a King Cheetah hitherto unknown to him.

1980: The King Cheetah Expedition, a winner on many levels that has also put King Cheetah unequivocally on the world stage, features prominently in Yorkshire TVs acclaimed Mysterious World series released worldwide.  A lifetime of significant press articles in magazines and in newspapers, including cover features, written about Paul and Léna, or written by Léna, with Radio and TV interviews with major networks seriously begins.  

1981: Across two days in May at separate locations in South Africa and virtually within a year and a bit of the Expedition that makes King Cheetah a household name across SA - a fame hopefully securing a safety net for protection against exploitation for gain - two King Cheetah cubs are born not by design but out of the blue - one male, one female - at De Wildt Research Centre Pretoria and commercially orientated Seaview Game Park Natal.  The latter's cub's mother Jumper, known to be pregnant, had been recently sold to Seaview by De Wildt due to her unusual fence-jumping skills - a cheetah....surely of interest? - deeming her a threat to procedures at the breeding station. Both cubs have been sired by a wild-caught male from the Messina district of  Northern Province (then Transvaal) the very area of SA the Bottriells have pin-pointed to be part of the wider habitat range of King Cheetah, and before these surprise births has already prevailed upon De Wildt to embark on a programme to try to produce King Cheetahs using stock from the Messina area.  But it's dismissed as a side issue to De Wildt's main ethos: viz. breeding cheetahs to generally conserve the species, all financial resources, at times stretched, committed to this.  At Seaview the owner is receiving offers of R40,000 plus for his cub way and above what he had paid for her mother, but claims he'll never sell; in a few short weeks the cub "Queenie" is shipped to De Wildt. The beginnings of a serious breeding procedure to produce King Cheetah is now suddenly acceptable and embarked upon - and not long before King Cheetah again becomes a commercial commodity, now worth far more living than as an inanimate skin.    

1986: Two adolescent King Cheetahs are sighted in Kruger Park where the Bottriells had operated their searches, arousing sufficient interest for SATOUR and SAA to jointly sponsor a courtesy trip and full itinerary for the Bottriells to follow-up; meanwhile a paper is published on De Wildt's King Cheetahs bred over the 4/5 years since the first two KC cubs in 1981.  Drawn from pedigree and lineage records of De Wildt's captive-bred cats only, with most if not all related, it suggests the complex King Cheetah change is compatible with what produces, universally, the tabby pattern in the highly bred domestic cat Felis catus- long established as the "tabby locus" theory - and not any genetic analysis, proceeding to proffer a future programme of test-crossing at the Centre to fully prove this, but which over time doesn't appear to ensue, or at least results not published.

1987: Léna Godsall Bottriell's King Cheetah: The Story of The Quest is published by esteemed academic publishing house Brill of Leiden.  Over time it will come to be regarded as the definitive book on the history and fascinating backstory of the legendary King Cheetah and the Bottriell's ground-breaking field expedition - aptly dubbed by the media "The Last Great Safari".  

1992: For the first time King Cheetah turns up outside the Bottriell's and historical record's ascribed area of operation for it: a very poorly cured skin seized from a humble local villager  trying to make ends meet, in the SE Burkina Faso/north Benin border region of West Africa,  which interestingly bears parallels with King Cheetah's preferred habitat, with remnant large  sacred forests, rich scrub country interspersed with open savanna, and lighter human population than Benin further south.  Needless to say it galvanises the Bottriells.  Either King Cheetah is developing where cheetah itself is rare - in fact non-existent across the wider region heading west, despite long ago occurring all the way to Senegal, a senegalensis cheetah initially first described near-on 200 years ago.  Or it's a travelled skin, on one of the contraband routes plying the continent's western flank.  But its poor tanned quality hardly makes this credible; this, and the core habitat of King Cheetah whence all records emanate 1000s of kms away, way down and across the continent in far-off SE Africa.  Paul and Léna travel via Ivory Coast to Pô and the Gov. Game Ranch HQ where the confiscated skin is, photograph and sample it for future DNA analysis.    

It swings emphasis back to an initial view of King Cheetah - is this what cheetah originally looked like before retreat of forest / woodland cover with rise of humans - hence continuity and regular uniformity across all King Cheetahs rather than haphazard occurrences of pattern - as opposed to King Cheetah being a new development in a geographic race evolving in response to environmental changes?  Or both, the original markings resurrected in the modern spotted cheetah driven by the geographic imperative of habitat loss, where cheetahs are more and more pushed into scrubland country not suited to grazing or other human activity in the last 150 years+. The Bottriells become inclined to the King Cheetah markings being cheetah's original pattern. 

1992-1993: From MalaMala Reserve in Sabi Sands - across the way from the adolescent King Cheetahs sighting in Kruger in 1986 - the Bottriells are elated to obtain superb photographs of a family group of four grown cheetahs: two King Cheetah with two common spotted.  The photos will be reproduced over following years in deserving publications - including a cover feature in the Geographical and shown at presentations by Paul and Léna at venerable institutions the likes of Royal Geographical Society, Zoological Society London, et al.  Another MalaMala guest is British PM Margaret Thatcher who on a game drive so happens upon what many won't see in a lifetime of game-viewing: the same family in the afore-mentioned photos - two rare King Cheetahs, with the same two spotted companions - making a kill right in front of her. When asked if she knows what the striped cheetahs are she replies they are King Cheetahs.  She does, after all, have a signed copy of Léna's King Cheetah book back in London.

2011/2012 - to date: The Bottriells are invited by University Veterinary Medicine Vienna to join an historic phylogeography study investigating cheetah's evolutionary development in relation to geography - biggest, broadest yet undertaken, involving near-on 400 samples to date - its brief ranging across cheetah's former historic range, from the southern African Cape, up through all regions of Africa where cheetah has occurred, on through Western Asia to the Russian steppes and India.  On-going for some 2 years prior to the Bottriells joining, the study has already confirmed Asiatic cheetah to be unambiguously separated from Africa's races, cheetah has genetic levels similar to other big cats confirming an overall higher genetic diversity than previously claimed, a significant differentiation between at least 4 of the described subspecies, with southern Africa's cheetah most likely ancestor of the other African subspecies (Molecular Ecology, BioRxiv).  Paul and Léna will personally collect an additional 280+ skin and bone samples from institutions across the globe of predominantly spotted cheetah of wild provenance for analysis, as well as bring to the study for the first time 12 samples of King Cheetah, 9 of wild origin, four King Cheetahs from Japan's Tama Zoo, and Singapore Zoo, plus fossil material of 2mya Giant European Cheetah - that probably bore a livery akin to King Cheetah's heavy woodland-style markings - sub-fossil cheetah 5 to 10,000 years old, and the oddity that is the Woolly Cheetah, Felis lanea.  Inclusion of wild King Cheetah, fossil material, and Felis lanea samples are a world first.

In September, following news of 12 mostly wild King Cheetah in the phylogeography study above, the Tabby theory is now revisited by a team investigating pigmentation patterns in domestic and wild cats.  Using around 70+ samples from blotched and mackerel domestic cats it identifies the gene responsible for tabby variation as Transmembrane aminopeptidase Q, Taqpep for short, and specifically interesting as this is basal to the split of domestic cat/puma lineages (7mya). Included is a single captive-bred King Cheetah - from a North American facility, and of De Wildt origin - where they identify Taqpep as the cause of the rare King Cheetah phenotype. 

The King Cheetah Legacy

Paul Bottriell and Léna Godsall Bottriell have together been the principal field researchers of King Cheetah dating back decades, bringing this zoological phenomenon deservedly to world attention - not least the general public, in the english-speaking world alone, in 1, 2 and 3 page articles in likes of The Guardian, Mail on Sunday, Geographical, Australian Woman's Day, Excellence, Cat World, London Evening Standard, Oxford Times, Courier Mail - sparking much lively debate in the process.  Just as the small boy Paul was sparked with the allure of King Cheetah through a chance remark about a big cat that was neither lion, leopard, nor cheetah that would light any adventurous and curious mind, he in turn sparked the same allure in Léna one day in the majestic Highlands of New Guinea when he spoke of King Cheetah for the first time to her.  The pair spent roughly two years in 1978/79 searching by Land-Rover, Landcruiser and hot-air balloon for signs King Cheetah was still extant in the wild.  Together Paul and Léna established King Cheetah has never been plentiful; while the geographic area they have painstakingly mapped for its area of operation is clearly set as the nucleus zone of past - and present - activity for King Cheetah.  

Tragically Paul passed away in May this year, victim of pre-Covid needless medical negligence when he had so much to see through to culmination, and Léna is now more determined than ever to carry through his King Cheetah legacy and their years work together that packed in so much, not least the historic DNA analysis they have been involved in full time since 2012 and still on-going, the biggest study yet to investigate the evolutionary development of the cheetah species as a whole, crucially including King Cheetah - with what's revealed to date credibly supporting the King Cheetah pattern being that of the original cheetah - as well fossil and sub-fossil cheetah never before analysed.  

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King Cheetah

Significant Points about King Cheetah to always bear in mind

1) What does a King Cheetah look like?

Instead of having spots where it should have spots King Cheetah has embossed unbroken dorsal stripes, thick, bold, running the length of the spine, always 3 main, with 2 shorter ones flanking them in full adults; blotches like irregularly shaped ink blots also raised above the base fur over flanks, legs, chest; all on a pelage b/g colour of isabelline - a pale grey-yellow or parchment oft applied to bird plumage - not the richer tawny-russet of spotted cheetah; a tail unique among big cats in being striped and ringed, two dorsal stripes not stopping at the rump but running on along it for the first half portion before thick bands ring the rest of it toward the tip; slim, supple, athletic cheetah body, albeit fractionally bigger as records show, built for running, with semi-retractile claws.

All King Cheetahs recorded have the same uniformity and consistency of markings across all documented.  But just as no Bengal tiger's markings will be an exact match or copy of another Bengal Tiger, each King Cheetah's markings are individual to it, like a fingerprint.  A rule that applies in any number of patterned animals - Grant's Zebra, Selous Zebra, Chapman's Zebra, Crawshay's  Zebra, Grevy's Zebra differ markedly between their respective races, but each member of each race has markings individual to it, whatever the race.  Likewise across the nine geographic races of giraffe.  

The other crucial point not to be missed with the intricate, complex pattern of King Cheetah is that there has never been a known record of an "in-between", an intermediate on record - that is a King Cheetah seriously minus its stripes, or a King Cheetah without its blotches, nor tails that aren't both striped and banded.  And never a King with a spotted tail.  

It's argued by some that a feature always ascribed to King Cheetah as special to it - longer hair and especially markings embossed or raised on the b/g fur - isn't unique to KC, as it occurs with spotted cheetahs in northern hemisphere open zoos.  But it's long been known that shorter haired spotted cheetah react to colder conditions in such zoos by their coat hair simply growing longer, usually winter - a common occurrence among many if not all animals - when the spots will also rise a degree with the increase in hair length; an adaptation Whipsnade Park up on the cold Downs of England, famous for being first to successfully breed cheetahs in number in a zoo, pointed up decades ago.  And just to balance things out, the naturally longer furred King Cheetah grows its fur even longer in colder northern zoos for the same reasons.    

2) What is a King Cheetah

The King Cheetah is considered a variant of the common spotted cheetah - not classified as a species or subspecies.  It can however be fairly described as a beneficial mutation, as Kretzoi considered it, and crucially beneficial mutations provide the genetic variation upon which evolutionary selection can act.  A fully comprehensive DNA analysis may in due course reveal a lot more - a gene complex, a multi-potent gene - that to date has eluded all best intentions to go deeper into this enigmatic development in the highly evolved, highly specialised cheetah.  

3) Why King Cheetah should not be lightly dismissed  

King Cheetah's occurrence is unprecedented in a highly evolved cat as specialised as cheetah, where arguably no need has arisen for nature to interfere to improve what already works well - hence no variants in any significant number.  And a chief reason why the occurrence of the King Cheetah in such a species stands out.  It is also a perfect example of disruptive camouflage - like giraffe, zebra et al - with markings enabling it to merge seamlessly into the scrubby woodland its markings ably suit.  Dismembering colouration - stripes and blotches carries off so well, especially in combination - destroys the impression of a solid form, and in King Cheetah may serve two purposes: defensive and offensive camouflage.  Yet for all such factors that should generally demand more concentrated attention, being touted a mere "pretty aberration" diverts attention from these compelling factors, by turn unconsciously softening objections to confining it behind bars or fences, and by turn again keeping it nothing more than a cosmetic curiosity not worthy of zoological merit, so suiting vested interests in King Cheetah remaining a commercial commodity.

Some point to other variations in the cheetah that should be equally notable - an argument on shaky ground: a single skin from 1921 with small spots and virtual absence of same on neck and shoulders (then one or two much later sightings of something not dissimilar) or an "unequivocal" single report of a black cheetah in an area of Kenya known for occurrences of black serval, just can't compare.  And the numbers just aren't there.  Add in an overly dissected, over quoted single "white cheetah" of Emperor Jahangir in India from 400 years ago, long agonized over in zoological writings - from an albino to a mutant of deep pigmentation gene.  Yet it matches any number of pale small-spotted cheetahs that have/do occur in extreme hot desert conditions stretching from Qattara Depression in Egypt eastward through Arabia.  In such conditions cheetah are invariably short haired, often very short-haired to the point of looking gaunt to an observer, where the often smoky basal skin is invariably reflecting through a thin overlay of fur and spots and - just as Jahangir's white cheetah is described - gives a bluish cast to a pale background.  

Only one such variant is worthy of mention: the oddity that is the Woolly Cheetah, Felis lanea, so named because its short-haired pelage - "woolly" repeatedly and erroneously taken to mean long by many who've referenced it, but in total reverse to how it is when seen - is alike to that of a shorn sheep with a lanolin feel, sparingly layered (like aforementioned cheetah of north Africa) in tiny spots, but here rufous coloured on pale base hair, a third smaller than King Cheetah: a pelage in tune with the semi-desert Karoo once its home turf in South Africa.  A real outlier of which Paul and Léna traced the only skins known, photographed, and took samples for DNA analysis.

4) Where are King Cheetahs found in the wild

Only south of the Zambezi in Africa in a triangle of country sweeping south down eastern Zimbabwe along western edges of Mozambique, over Limpopo into South Africa's Northern Province, across to Tuli Block of east Botswana, bounded by the formidable barrier of the Zambezi to the north that's likely prevented migration of cheetah north or south of it for at least the last 2+ million years since major land upheavals affected the course of the river; a vast spread connected by topography, vegetation, climate, soil. The skin that appeared in Burkina Faso some 10,000 kms as the crow flies to the opposite side and end of the continent, is so far a one-off, with no living King Cheetah or another skin yet reported or recorded outside King Cheetah's Zimbabwe and adjacent environs enclave.  

5) How many King Cheetahs are out there 

The exact number currently is unknown - possibly in the wild as few as 10 but still difficult to quantify precisely. The total number, including those in captivity and wildlife reserves, probably upwards of 50, making King Cheetahs among the rarest animals in the world, and because of its unique specialness and the many questions its occurrence asks, more than worthy of attention and preservation.   

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