IMG_6945

 

Anne Hilborn

IMG_5083 IMG_5084

Blog

In my blog I ramble on about various aspects of cheetahs and doing fieldwork that interest me. There is the occasional tangent about academia, but mostly it is cheetah pictures.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 18 2016 12:48AM

October 2014


With the unseasonal rains, the herds of zebra and wildebeest turned up in the Seronera area again. The zebra came first, and suddenly the place smelt like a horse barn. Now I've always considered yearling wildebeest to be the largest prey that cheetahs go for, but an afternoon spent with two young males exploded that idea. These are two young but hunky males that suddenly turned up south of Apollo and Bacchus's territory. They were in long unburned grass and they took advantage of the cover to bring down a zebra, and not a small zebra either, but a 3/4 size one. The next day they were almost obscenely fat, and the when I found them they were sitting on a termite mound, being stared at by a semi circle of wary zebra.



Zebra staring at cheetahs full of zebra



The wildebeest turned up a bit later, providing a bonanza for Apollo and Bacchus. I spent a couple of days with them and learned a bit about their routine. It started with a lot of sleeping. Then at some point they would rouse themselves and start walking slowly towards the river, peeing on every tree that happened to be in their way.



Bonding through coordinated scent marking


. Once at the river a whole cluster of cars would inevitably surround them and I would curse to myself about my blocked view, about animal harassment and any other charge I could think of to lay at the feet of the tourists. However the cheetahs were fairly undisturbed, making their slow way across the river and up to the plains on the other side where they sat and inspected the available wildebeest offerings.




Crossing the main road in Seronera to get to the wildebeest on the other side


I watched them take down an adult wildebeest one afternoon, and a hell of a fight it was. One of them was doing all the hard work at the dangerous front end. The end with the horns and hooves and the real risk of trampling and goring. Meanwhile the other one was nibbling daintily and unhelpfully on a back leg. Eventually he figured his brother might actually need some help, so he moved around and grappled with the front end as well. The wildebeest succumbed fairly quickly after that.





Apollo and Bacchus got to eat a decent amount of the carcass before a hyena came in. They surrendered it without much of a fuss, being pretty fat already.




A nice easy meal for a hyena.





By Anne Hilborn, Apr 18 2016 12:16AM

September 2014, again


There has been a fair amount of unexpected rain, and with the burning done by the parks staff, this has led to incredibly green swards. The gazelle and zebra have flocked to them, making Seronera in August look incongruously like the short grass plains in February.



The high density of prey was good for me because I was short on data on cheetah hunting behaviour in high prey density areas. Usually they are asleep in the long grass with not a gazelle to be seen. Recently, I was meandering around the short green grass of Boma kopjes when I found Cooper.



Cooper surveys the desolate emptiness of Boma Kopjes without Bradley



He contact called a bit, thought about chasing some gazelle, then lay down under a tree to sleep off the sadness. A bold black backed jackal came up to investigate. I was impressed as I have seen cheetahs chase jackals with much determination and joy. In fact they love to chase any of the carnivores that are smaller than them. I blame it on being in the middle of the pecking order, cheetahs have to duck and dive to avoid lions and hyenas, so they take out their frustration by chasing jackals, servals, and anything else that is small and furry.





However Cooper evidently couldn’t care less about the jackal, who having sniffed his full, wandered off.



Bradley and Cooper are very devoted brothers (I have great series of pictures of them spooning and grooming), and finding no Bradley worried me. But I cheered myself with the thought that he was probably out on the shag. Cheetah brothers will sometimes approach females together and sometimes one of them will sneak off to get a mating to himself. The other explanation for his absence was that he was dead. An explanation I wasn’t keen to consider, so I was very very pleased when Dennis found both of them together and fat about a week later.


The other pair of brothers in the Seronera area are Apollo and Bacchus. They may have been godlike once but now they are mangy and cross looking and if it wasn’t frowned upon to rename cheetahs (special cases being made if the cheetah is named after someone you now hate like an ex boyfriend or his mother), I was very tempted to rename them Preserved and Killick after the character in Patrick O’ Brian’s nautical historical novels (which I listen to ad nauseam while on follows). As well as being physically unprepossessing, they display a distinct lack of brotherly affection towards each other that I find troubling.




I once watched Apollo do nothing about Bacchus’s bloody face for hours after eating. Hours I tell you!



Richard and Armitage would never let that happen




Neither would Bradley and Cooper




However recently I found Apollo and Bacchus and there was a gratifying amount of bonding between them and I softened my harsh assessment of their behavior.







By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 11:35PM

September 2014





September will go down as the month where I finally managed to do the fieldwork as I planned it oh so many months ago. The idea that I came up with in my innocence was that I’d follow the same cheetah for 5 days in a row. This rested on a number of assumptions that turned out to be a wee bit false. Namely that cheetahs didn’t move at night and at dawn would be sitting in where I had left them at dusk. Not so, and I struggled mightily to even find the same cheetah 2 days running. I struggled to the point where I reconsidered my plan of attack and even went back and read some scientific papers to see if just following a cheetah for a day instead of multiple days would still allow me to accomplish the objectives of my PhD (It will...fingers crossed). So while I made an attempt to find the previous day’s cheetah again, usually I followed a different one every day. However this changed the day I found a mother and her 3 cubs for 6 glorious days in a row. She is a rarely seen female, and we hadn’t seen her seven month old cubs before. She spent the 6 days in a fairly small area, hunkering down and not moving for the night and also importantly, hunting a lot. She had 3 cubs to feed, which meant in 6 days she killed 5 times. None of this sleeping-off-a-full-belly- for-two-days rigmarole I had come to expect from single cheetahs. It was a glorious richness of data, and I never wanted it to end. However real life of office work intruded and the day after she was nowhere to be found. I named her Wendi after my sister in law who had recently visited.




Wendi has a female and two male cubs. All of them seemed to take special delight in trying to get her to play with them by the means of face patting, neck biting and sudden attacks when she was trying to sleep. I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic when she would suddenly retaliate with the nip to the hindquarters or crotch.











There is only so much a mother can take before she goes for the disciplinary crotch bite




Wendi brought down a gazelle late in Day 4 and it was getting on towards sunset before the cubs had had their fill of eating and playing with the carcass. It was a pregnant gazelle and the cubs played tug of war with the head of the fetus for an unnecessarily long time.




Wendi led her cubs a short distance away, but then spotted a hyena heading for the remains of the carcass. Hyenas can be deadly to cheetah cubs, so like a conscientious mother, she took them at a fast clip in the other direction. However in the other direction was a herd of about 40 elephants. This lead to an utterly magical Serengeti moment of 4 cheetahs walking in the gorgeous light very near elephants, everyone ignoring everyone else. I felt incredibly lucky to witness it.







By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 11:21PM

August 2014


So leaving behind the story of Asti, let's move on to an appreciation of a young female named Strudel. She has been hanging around a beautiful area known as Sopa Valley, a small valley tucked away to the west of Seronera. It is bounded by wooded hills, but the valley is fairly open with big spreading acacias and areas of long grass plains. There aren’t many roads so it isn’t swarming with cars, and the only drawback is one or two too many tsetse flies. It is a very pleasant place to spend the day, and if you are with a slightly pissed off looking cheetah who is hunting, it is even better.



Strudel possess a very sweet face that for some reason is always set is a pissed off expression. It's as if her face really did freeze like that when she was young. In fact it is so marked that I was able to recognize her because of it. I would approach a random cheetah, see that it was a female...think to myself 'oh what a sweetie!' then notice the narrowed eyes and laid back ears and say 'Aha, I bet that is Strudel'.




Strudel- Master of looking unamused





One of the days I followed her she went after a male Thomson’s gazelle. I really thought she had him, but he managed to escape. This did not seem to improve her mood.



A gazelle innocently walks along
A gazelle innocently walks along


Wait...Is that a cheetah butt in the grass?
Wait...Is that a cheetah butt in the grass?



And they're off!







Cheetahs are faster, but gazelles can out maneuver them with quick changes in direction





She gets so close!





But ultimately fails





And goes and sulks on a termite mound






By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 10:09PM

Late May 2014



In late May I was on a particularly choppy five day follow. By choppy I mean as usual I struggled to find the same cheetah for two days in a row. Back then I was still full of confidence that I could make this 5 day follow thing work, so I kept looking. Day 1 I spent with an old female named Courtney. She did bugger all, slept all day. This lack of activity made me hope that she would hunt the next day. However could I find her again on Day 2? Of course not. After driving and looking all morning, I parked in the shade and sulked for a bit before deciding to give up on Courtney and head to another area called Hidden Valley. The morning of Day 3 I found Asti and her 5 teeny tiny cubs.


It passed by the cheetahs without paying much attention, however the other hyena came up to investigate. Deciding action was needed, Asti got up and stalked stiff legged towards the hyena. It got nearer and she charged it and then kept running up towards a third hyena who turned and retreated. The second hyena was not impressed and hadn’t moved so she came back towards it growling. Asti got very close, passing right by it but there was no contact and the hyena seemed unfazed by the whole thing. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, Asti went back to her cubs and soon led them quickly across the valley and into the long grass where they would be less visible. At this point I left them to follow Almond and her big cub who were also in the area.





In official scientist speak, cubs this small are known as Cubby Wubby Wubbies. Asti is the daughter of Sauterns, and is about 4.5 years old. I estimated the cubs to be about 3 months old, so they most likely hadn’t been out of the den for much over a couple of weeks. Spending the day watching gorgeous cheetah cubs really isn’t too bad, even when you worry about them being noticed and killed by lions or hyenas. Early in the morning Asti took them across the valley floor where they were quite exposed, but soon they settled down under a tree. Cheetah cubs have such a high mortality rate (only 5% make it to independence at 18 months) that whenever I am with them I can’t help speculating about the many sad fates they will meet. These five seemed intent on maiming themselves by playing on the small acacia tree Asti was resting under.





Acacia thorns are formidable, and cheetahs are not graceful in trees, not graceful at all. Watching them awkwardly fall face first down the trunk through spiny branches was not confidence inspiring. Thankfully no one lost an eye that day, nor the next day when I found them again looking very photogenic in the morning light.



Day 5 they were still in the same general area, and I found them first thing clustered on top of a termite mound. However it was not long before danger loomed. Asti suddenly stiffened and gazed very intently towards the north, and following her gaze I saw two hyenas. Hyenas are not the chief killers of cheetah cubs (lions take that crown), but they do kill them, and a good cheetah mother will be very careful around them. Asti is a pretty good mother. She hunkered down and kept a very close eye on one of the hyenas as it approached.





It passed by the cheetahs without paying much attention, however the other hyena came up to investigate. Deciding action was needed, Asti got up and stalked stiff legged towards the hyena. It got nearer and she charged it and then kept running up towards a third hyena who turned and retreated. The second hyena was not impressed and hadn’t moved so she came back towards it growling. Asti got very close, passing right by it but there was no contact and the hyena seemed unfazed by the whole thing. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, Asti went back to her cubs and soon led them quickly across the valley and into the long grass where they would be less visible. At this point I left them to follow Almond and her big cub who were also in the area.




Asti tries to see off the hyena. Hyena is not impressed
Asti tries to see off the hyena. Hyena is not impressed


Despite valiant efforts to save her cubs that time, six weeks later she only had one cub left. We have no idea of knowing how they died but lions and hyenas are the leading causes of cheetah cub mortality




Asti with the only surviving cub
Asti with the only surviving cub



RSS Feed

Web feed