The highs and lows of fieldwork
By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 07:55PM
At the moment there isn’t a research assistant on the cheetah project, so I am filling that role. Which means I am focusing on collecting the long term demographic data for the project, which means trying to see as many cheetahs as possible per month. The regular quota is 20 sightings of different cheetahs per month with coalitions of males or mothers with cubs counting as one sighting. Some months this is an easy task, while others it can be a heart burning grind. Cheetahs are very mobile, and spread out so you rarely can predict where they will be. Females don’t have territories, instead roaming over home ranges that are up to 800 km2. Males can be territorial or nomadic, and the nomadic ones can wander as much as females. The general pattern is that they follow the gazelles, who follow the rain and green grass. This means being on the southern and eastern plains in the wet season from December to May, and up in the long grass plains in the dry season for the rest of the year. None of the cheetahs are collared so to find them I head out at dawn and scan with binoculars from high points. Seeing a cheetah a day is the aim, and spending all day driving around and scanning without seeing any cheetahs is a disheartening experience. Finding one always brings a sense of relief and victory, which can easily turn to frustration if it is a cheetah that has already been seen that month. Each cheetah has a unique pattern of spots on their body that we use to identify individuals. Once I find a cheetah, I take photos for ID (the best are of the cheetah standing side on, not very artistic, but it gets the job done), record age, sex (testicle check), belly size, amount of mange, weather, habitat, number of cubs etc.
The Landrover, back in the bush where it belongs
The project is collecting fecal samples to determine who fathers the cubs. I also collect data on hunting behavior. There is a lot of waiting on cheetah project. Waiting for a cheetah to stand up so I can get a decent ID shot. Waiting for a cheetah to crap. Previously when I worked for cheetah project this meant a lot of reading, Sudoku, and general vacant staring into space. The day I discovered the tape collection at Cheetah House and started bringing my Walkman into the field was a huge step forward. Which was 2006, in case you were wondering. But now that I am hard working multi-tasking PhD student, the plan is to read scientific papers, enter data, and write material for social media and outreach efforts. Some of that is actually happening, for example right now I am parked at Gol kopjes, looking out on the short green plains, scattered with gazelle and wildebeest. 2 hyenas cruised by within 20 m, strengthening my resolution not to spend much time sitting outside of the car alone especially not when focused on something other than my surroundings
The mornings here are usually wonderfully fresh and clear, and parked on a hill top scanning through binoculars at 7:15 am, it feels like you can see forever and the day is full of incredible promise. However by 9 the heat haze starts to kick up and visibility gets much shorter. By 11 am or so, the haze has gotten bad enough that it is usually time to give up looking for cheetahs. While they can be active at any time, like most sensible creatures, they tend to take a bit of a snooze during mid day, so it becomes even harder to find them. Therefore if you are on track to meet the monthly quota, it makes sense to head home around noon. Or if you are camping out that night, time to find a nice kopje and park by it for the afternoon. It is sometimes possible to find cheetahs in the late afternoon, so usually if I am camping, I’ll have another bit of a scanning session between 4-6.
The plains in the morning light
The new research assistant arrives in a couple of days, and I’ll train him for March and some of April. Once he is ready to go, he will collect the demographic data for the project and I can start focusing on collecting hunting data for my PhD.