The African cheetah is not the fastest animal in the world. That honour goes to the peregrine falcon, a bird that dives at almost 400 km/h (250 mph).
Cheetah can run faster than anything else on the planet, with a top speed over 120 km/h. However, other animals can swim and fly faster.
In this article we celebrate the beauty and skills of 15 of the fastest animals, including how these animals achieve such incredible speeds and where you can encounter them in the wild.
Note that there is no definitive list of fastest animals in the world. There are species we are yet to scientifically record. Others are included on fastest animals lists yet based on folklore and flimsy evidence.
This list is not final. It covers some of the fastest animals we truly know about.
1. Peregrine falcon – over 350 km/h
When perched this falcon looks a little dull. When flying it is easy to miss. Reaching speeds above 350 km/h this widespread bird moves at a greater speed than any other animal. Peregrine falcons are widespread across the world and there are four subspecies resident to Africa.
If we dived at 350 km/h it would cause incredible damage to our lungs. The fastest animal on planet earth has special nostrils, allowing it to breathe and regulate air pressure at the same time. These falcons also have third eyelids (known as nictitating membranes) acting like windscreen wipers to clear away dirt.
2. Golden eagle – 240 km/h
Magnificent in flight and deadly when diving, golden eagles can effortlessly change speed. They cruise at a mere 50 km/h but can quickly reach 240 km/h when diving for prey. While peregrine falcons weigh less than one kilogram, golden eagles are immense species combining speed with power.
These second fastest animals can be glimpsed in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains and the semi-desert Saharan areas of Morocco and Mauritania.
3. Mexican free-tailed bat – 160 km/h
Nobody knows the exact Mexican free-tailed bat population. However, some bat colonies number over 20 million! Weighing just 12 grams these tiny bats gather in huge concentrations across the Americas.
They migrate up and down the Pacific at speeds of 160 km/h (100 mph). This makes them the fastest mammal in the world. One place to watch them is Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas. 1.5 million migrate there to feed on insects during the summer!
4. Pigeon – 149 km/h
Hands up if you have never seen a common pigeon. In European capital cities you can hardly move for these greedy animals. But away from Trafalgar Square, pigeons are one of the world’s fastest animals.
Not only are they fast. Pigeons are fast over a long distance. In one race the winning pigeon was recorded flying at an average of 149 km/h, over 640 km! Pigeons may sometimes look fat and lazy but they can do 149 km/h for more than four continuous hours!
5. Black marlin – 131 km/h
The quickest fish in the ocean, black marlin are another animal faster than the cheetah. They look dangerous, with their spear-like jaw and incredible dorsal fin. And they have been recorded swimming at 131 km/h.
Unfortunately, black marlin are hunted commercially and as fishing trophies. Surely these beautiful creatures should be left alone?
6. Grey-headed albatross – 127 km/h
Gyrfalcons and frigatebirds are also almost among the fastest flying animals in the world. Like the peregrine falcon, they can dive at these incredible speeds, so have the benefit of gravity. Grey-headed albatross have been recorded flying horizontally at 127 km/h (79 mph) for nine continuous hours!
A 2.2 metre wingspan helps them generate speed and then maintain a comfortably cruising tempo. And they need that speed because their habitat is the greatest and largest wilderness on the planet: Antarctica.
7. Cheetah – 120 km/h
The fastest animal running upon planet earth, cheetah can accelerate from 0-100 km/h in just three seconds. When hunting on the African savannah they can hit 120 km/h. They travel eight metres in a single stride yet can only sustain 100 km/h for 30 seconds.
Cheetah can be seen on an African safari yet are often elusive. Northern Botswana safaris and South Africa’s private reserves are good options. However, the African cheetah has lost 91% of its range and their population is declining rapidly.
Read more about how fast a cheetah can run here, including their inflated nostrils, oversized heart, and extra long tail.
8. Sailfish – 109 km/h
Back to the oceans we go to find sailfish, beautiful creatures who swim fast and leap faster. They have been clocked leaping out of the water at 109 km/h. However, their speed is not matched by stamina.
Sailfish are hunted by shortfin mako sharks, the fastest large predatory animal in the ocean. Incidentally, mako sharks can hit 50 km/h but can still chase down the sailfish. Great white sharks swim at just 40 km/h, that is as fast as an elephant can fun.
9. Pronghorn – 98 km/h
Pronghorn look like antelope. They have impressive horns, powerful hind legs, and can run at 98 km/h. They are actually artiodactyls, a type of mammal species indigenous to North America.
Pronghorn had three artiodactyl relatives but these were hunted to extinction. Now its closest living relative is… the giraffe! Yep, the world’s second fastest land animal is part of the Giraffoidea family. Hey, do you know how fast can a giraffe run?
10. Springbok – 88 km/h
Bounding across the Southern African plains, springbok are a beautiful sight when in full flight. Slightly slower than the pronghorn they have been measured at 88 km/h. Pronghorn can keep their speed over long distances, while springbok are more agile and can turn sharply to evade predators.
Do you know about pronking? It is the strange springbok behaviour of bouncing up and down with straight legs. Find out about springbok and pronking here.
11. Lion – 81 km/h
Lions are the Usain Bolts on this list of the world’s fastest animals. They can hit 81 km/h, yet are completely exhausted after 200 metres. Wait, Usain Bolt never looks exhausted does he? But most Olympic sprinters do.
Lionesses must get incredibly close to their prey before going in for the kill. They hunt with skill and stealth rather than just speed. One popular tactic is for half the pride to sprint full speed at their prey. This panics a herd and drives an individual into an ambush.
It wouldn’t be an African safari without encountering a lion. How can you find them? First step is to learn the sounds a lion makes, so you can be guided by audio clues.
12. Blue wildebeest – 80 km/h
Wildebeest are born to run. Most famously, some 1.5 million of them make up the great wildebeest migration across Serengeti National Park and the Masai Mara. Bucking and rutting they spend the mornings showing off speed and power. Even during the migration, wildebeest will be sprinting around purely for joy.
Their top speed is 80 km/h, a tad beneath that of their nemesis – the lion!
13. Thomson’s gazelle – 80 km/h
You would think that 80 km/h and nimble zigzagging would be good enough for Thomson’s gazelle to avoid predators. Unfortunately, they are hunted by the fastest animal in Africa, the cheetah!
Sources vary as to their exact speed. Some have suggested that Thomson’s gazelle can run at 96 km/h, although 80 km/h is more realistic. You can see them on a safari in the Serengeti, where almost half a million of them reside.
14. Ostrich – 72 km/h
Comfortably the fastest animal on two legs, ostrich run at 72 km/h. And they seem to like running. Even on ostrich farms you can see these flightless birds sprinting across the savannah with their strange gait.
Oudtshoorn in South Africa is thought to be home to 98% of the world’s ostrich, although these are farmed ostrich. Go here if you want to ride an ostrich, just note that clinging onto a wild bird at 72 km/h is a near impossible task!
15. African wild dog – 71 km/h
We end our list with one of the most impressive yet endangered animals on the planet. Wild dogs have been recorded sprinting at over 70 km/h. Unlike lions and cheetahs they can maintain this speed over long distances.
When hunting, the African wild dog can run at 60 km/h for some five kilometres. This makes it very difficult for their prey to escape. Find out more about the African wild dog here.
More of the World’s Fastest Animals
Africa is home to many of the world’s fastest animals. If you enjoyed this article then you can continue reading about other fast animals in Africa here, including giraffe, elephant, speedy rhino and hippo that are faster than you think.
And let’s just put these speeds into perspective. A golden eagle does 240 km/h. Usain Bolt, the fastest human in history, only just makes it over 40 km/h.