Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Monday, 28 July 2014


Painting of the king cheetah's type specimen as imagined in life, from PZSL, 1927 (public domain)

How tragic it is that such wonderful creatures have no concept, no awareness, of just how beautiful and magical they are.
Then again, perhaps they do - after all, they are cats...

Karl Shuker - Re king cheetahs, posted on his Facebook wall, 31 July 2010

Many mysterious African animals once thought to be legendary or wholly imaginary monsters solely confined to the realms of native folklore and superstition have ultimately been found to be real (albeit elusive) creatures that have successfully eluded formal scientific recognition until modern times. The mountain gorilla, okapi, giant forest hog, and pygmy hippopotamus were all dismissed as myths by Western science until the 20th Century. So too was another bizarre beast - the leopard-hyaena or nsui-fisi...until 1926.


This was when a short letter penned by Major A.C. Cooper from Salisbury (now Harare) in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was published by The Field, alongside his photograph of an extraordinary cat skin. Cooper believed the skin to be from a crossbreed of leopard and cheetah, which had been trapped at Macheke, about 62 miles southeast of Salisbury, but he was astonished by the exceptionally ornate markings adorning its golden-yellow coat, which were unlike those of any cat previously recorded by science. Upon its flanks and upper limbs they consisted of graceful curved stripes and abstract blotches, whereas a series of longitudinal stripes ran from its neck and shoulders along the entire length of its back to the upper portion of its tail, and a succession of thick black stripes encircled the remainder of its tail. Also of note were its non-retractile claws (a cheetah characteristic), and a mane-like ruff round its neck.

Back view of a king cheetah, revealing its very eyecatching longitudinal dorsal stripes (© Steve Jurvetson-Wikipedia-Flickr)

This wonderful creature matched traditional tribal descriptions of a strange monster termed the nsui-fisi (‘leopard-hyaena’), which was fervently claimed by Rhodesian natives to be the rare, exotic progeny of liaisons between leopards and hyaenas, as it was said by them to be as lithe, swift, and cunning as a leopard but boldly barred like the striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena. Such an identity was zoologically impossible, of course, but the fact remained that Cooper's mysterious big cat was still unexplained.

Not surprisingly, it soon attracted the attention of felid specialist Reginald Pocock, from the British Museum (Natural History), who identified it from Cooper's photograph as an aberrant leopard. (Interestingly, during the early years of the 20th Century, cats just like it had apparently been well known to locals in the Mazoe area of Rhodesia's northern region, where they were referred to as Mazoe leopards.) Once he was able to examine the skin itself, however, he swiftly changed his mind, recognising it to be from a cheetah - albeit one with dramatically different coat markings from the familiar polka-dot pelage of the normal cheetah Acinonyx jubatus. In 1927, Pocock announced that the skin represented a new species, which, due to its regal appearance and vaguely leonine mane, he dubbed Acinonyx rex - the king cheetah.

King cheetah (© Steve Jurvetson-Wikipedia-Flickr)

During the next few years, several other king cheetah skins were obtained - all from a triangle of terrain enclosing eastern and southern Zimbabwe, northern South Africa, and eastern Botswana - but as the number of skins increased, it became evident that some of these were intermediate in appearance between normal cheetahs and the first king cheetah, documented by Major Cooper. In other words, there was no longer a clear morphological demarcation line between spotted cheetahs and the striped king cheetah. This could mean only one thing - the king cheetah was not a distinct species in its own right after all. Instead, it was merely a freak mutant variety of the normal cheetah - which Pocock conceded in 1939.

As a result, interest in the king cheetah waned, and after a time reports of such specimens rarely emerged. Indeed, by the 1970s some zoologists had begun to fear that this handsome striped strain had died out, but during the 1970s a king was filmed living with normal cheetahs in the Kruger National Park.

The 1970s Kruger-inhabiting king cheetah individual, as featured on the front cover of leading king cheetah researcher Lena Bottriell's definitive book, King Cheetah (1987)

Today, there is no doubt that the king cheetah is indeed alive and well, with several specimens having been born within litters of normal spotted cheetahs in captivity in South Africa.


Since its scientific discovery, there has been a great deal of conflict concerning the king cheetah's taxonomic status. At first it was believed to be a hybrid of leopard and cheetah, then a valid species, and ultimately a mutant form of the normal cheetah. In May 1981, however, the de Wildt Cheetah Breeding and Research Centre of Pretoria's National Zoological Gardens was able to examine this issue in a thorough manner, when a king cheetah was unexpectedly born to a pair of normal cheetahs here. A few days later, moreover, a second king was born, this time to the sister of the first king's mother.

Two normal spotted cheetahs

These fortuitous events duly initiated a programme of monitored breeding conducted at the centre, in order to determine the genetic basis of the king cheetah phenotype. By 1986, it had become clear that a recessive mutant allele was responsible, equivalent to the recessive allele producing the blotched tabby coat pattern in domestic cats. In other words, only cheetahs with two copies of the 'king' allele are kings. Cheetahs with one copy of the king allele and one of the normal (wild-type) spotted allele, or cheetahs with two copies of the spotted allele and none of the king allele, are normal spotted cheetahs.

Moreover, in a paper published by the journal Science in September 2012, a team of American genetics researchers from several different institutes revealed that they had identified the specific gene responsible for the king cheetah's striped coat pattern and the blotched coat pattern in domestic tabby cats. Both are caused by a recessive mutation in a gene dubbed Taqpep by the researchers.

Close-up of a king cheetah's fur, revealing its blotched-tabby-homologous pelage markings (© Wegmann/Wikipedia)

And so, one mystery concerning the king cheetah is a mystery no more - but there are others that still await a solution, and none is more fascinating than the following example.


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 – or have they?

There are two possible and potentially extremely significant exceptions to this widely-assumed rule (and three, if we consider some remarkable evidence that I lately uncovered for the erstwhile presence of at least one king cheetah specimen in the wild not anywhere in Africa, but instead in Asia, and which in 2013 I formally documented in Vol. 2 of the Journal of Cryptozoology, whose logo, very aptly, is a king cheetah – click here for further details).

A young king cheetah (© DannyBlue/Deviantart)

The first possible exception to the king cheetah's strict zoogeographical limitation to southern Africa is a king cheetah skin that in 1988 turned up in the West African country of Burkina Faso. It supposedly came from a specimen that had been shot by a poacher in the northern end of the Singou Total Fauna Reserve. Some researchers wonder whether this mystifying skin is one that in reality originated in southern Africa but which later travelled northwest via itinerant poachers or other skin traders. Alternatively, however, could a 'king' strain of cheetah have spontaneously arisen in West Africa?

As for the second putative exception to the rule of the king cheetah being exclusively southern African in distribution, this is one that has never been publicly revealed – until now. It features an extremely obscure East/Central African mystery beast known as the mpisimbi

King cheetah head (above) and normal spotted cheetah head (below)

In 1927, Chambers’s Journal published a fascinating article on East and Central African mystery beasts entitled ‘On the Trail of the Brontosaurus and Co.’. It was written by ‘Fulahn’, the pen-name of Captain William Hichens - a man whose name should already be familiar to mystery cat aficionados. For he was none other than the Native Magistrate at Lindi, Tanzania, during the 1920s and 1930s who investigated a succession of particularly gruesome murders there attributed by the local people to a giant brindled mystery cat known as the nunda or mngwa (click here for a ShukerNature blog post devoted to this feline cryptid).

Most of the cryptids documented by Hichens in his Chambers's Journal article are relatively famous ones, with one notable exception. Contained within his account are a couple of tantalising lines that have fascinated and frustrated me in equal measures for many years:

"But such are the mystery animals. There are others – the mpisimbi, the leopard-hyaena, which eats sugar-cane, and which I have hunted many a weary night without success;"

Despite numerous searches, I have never been able to uncover any additional information concerning this enigmatic creature. So what exactly is the mpisimbi?

King cheetahs (© David Pepper-Edwards)

The above-quoted lines offer no morphological description whatsoever of the mpisimbi. Conversely, its name’s English translation – ‘leopard-hyaena’ - is very intriguing, because it corresponds precisely with the English translation of the king cheetah’s native South African name, nsui-fisi. Moreover, Hichens’s unusual claim that the mpisimbi eats sugar-cane adds further to a putative link between the mpisimbi and the king cheetah, because in a second article, published under his own name a year later in Wide World Magazine, Hichens stated: “The Nsuifisi, or striped cheetah...was also reputed to be a raider of grain and sugar-cane”.

Of course, as Hichens went on to discuss, because cheetahs are carnivores it seems improbable that they would raid grain-plots. And even though hyaenas are notorious scavengers with an extremely catholic diet, they are not known to attack standing crops, but they will certainly devour cooked grain, vegetables, and even boiled flour.

King cheetah (© AKovacs23/Photobucket)

Such considerations and qualifications, however, are not significant with regard to the cryptozoological mystery under review here. What is significant is that both the mpisingi and the nsui-fisi were claimed, rightly or wrongly, by the native tribes in their respective, separate areas of Africa to consume the very same unexpected foodstuff – sugar-cane.

Is it conceivable, therefore, that the mpisimbi and the nsui-fisi are indeed one and the same creature – namely, the king cheetah? If so, it suggests that at some time in the distant past, striped cheetahs did exist in East and/or Central Africa – although, with no modern-day reports of such beasts on file, even if they once did exist there they seemingly no longer do. Put another way: whatever it may have been, tragically the mpisimbi is now apparently extinct.

King cheetahs (© David Pepper-Edwards)

Of course, sceptics may well claim that this is all supposition, but the presence of those brief lines regarding the mpisimbi in Hichens’s article means that the possibility of mpisimbi and king cheetah synonymity, however remote it may seem, cannot be discounted.

Moreover, who can say whether, in the future, a king cheetah or two will not spontaneously arise in the East African population of the normal spotted cheetah? That is, after all, what spontaneous mutations do!

At present, however, the mystery of the mpisimbi's zoological identity remains yet another enigma in the eventful history of Africa's extraordinary striped cheetah - the once (and future?) king.

Diagrammatic representation of the king cheetah's ornate pelage patterning (© Tim Morris)

For plenty of fascinating additional information concerning king cheetahs and other exotic cheetah varieties (including woolly cheetahs, blue-spotted cheetahs, black cheetahs, and unspotted cheetahs or cheetalines, be sure to check out my two dedicated crypto-cat books – Mystery Cats of the World (Robert Hale: London, 1989) and  Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2012).


  1. Is there a "king tiger" also found in nature? The Germans named their most advanced tank in WW2 "King Tiger" and I've always wondered where the name came from...

  2. The Bengal tiger used to be called the royal tiger, so it may possibly have been derived from this; but genetically, there is no tigerine equivalent to the king cheetah (at least not as yet anyway). There are leopard and jaguar equivalents.