As an animal totem and a tattoo design, the cheetah symbolizes swiftness, insight and focus. Of all the big cats, the cheetah is the fastest, capable of reaching speeds of more than 100 km/h - 68 mph - in 3 seconds. This dazzling display of acceleration makes the cheetah the fastest land animal on the planet and helps account in part for its immense popularity. With its small head, narrow waist and long tail, the cheetah is built for speed. A deep chest accommodates a heart that accelerates rapidly when giving chase. Its success as a hunter depends on its speed and the ability to finish off its prey with one powerful bite to the throat. Devouring its kill before other predators arrive on the scene is essential for the cheetah, since the physical toll of the chase leaves it exhausted and vulnerable. Hauling its prey high into a tree - like its close cousin, the leopard - is beyond the cheetah's ability. For these reasons, the cheetah is also among the shyest and most reclusive of the big cats.
African legend recounts how the tawny cheetah got the black markings known as 'tear stains', which appear to stream from its eyes. Believing that her cubs had been stolen by an unscrupulous hunter, the mother cheetah abandoned her kill to search for them. Meanwhile, the hunter stole her hard-earned kill. So long did the cheetah sob that tears made channels through the fur. Justice prevailed in the end, and the cubs were returned and the hunter punished. The cheetah's 'tear stains' became a reminder that the sacred traditions of the hunt must prevail, making the cheetah a symbol of honour and respect.