Anne Hilborn

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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 17 2016 09:42PM

June 2014

What with Dennis collecting the demographic data for the Cheetah Project, I have been able to devote most of my time to my follows. This is it, the real thing, the big time. This decides whether the previous 2 ½ years of work on my PhD has given me the requisite background knowledge and flexibility to be able to adapt as things go wrong. Because as any PhD student will tell you, stuff always goes wrong.

The theory is that I follow a cheetah or group of cheetahs for several days in order to record all of their hunts, both successful and unsuccessful. Cheetahs are mostly diurnal and I assumed that they wouldn’t hunt or move around at night, and if I left them at dusk, they would be in the same general area at dawn the next day. This is proving to be not always true. Sometimes it has worked, especially with mothers with small cubs, but more often than not I really struggle to find the cheetahs again the next day. So far I have not managed to follow one group of cheetahs for more than 3 days without losing them. Males especially are distressingly active at night. I have tried to follow 2 named Bradley and Cooper several times. Their mode of operating seems to be to sleep all day, rouse themselves around 6 pm, have a bit of a stretch and a groom, and then take off to scent mark on everything in sight. By the time it gets dark, they are still walking. The times I have been able to find them again the next morning (after much laborious searching), they have been 4-5 km away from where I left them at dark. My inability to observe 2 consecutive successful hunts in the past month means that I may not be able to use time between successful attacks as a parameter in my models as I planned. I suspect I will have to rethink a chunk of my PhD. That is never a comfortable thought, especially when already in the field and ability to access and read scientific papers is a bit limited.


However I am getting better at camping. I have a platform and mattress in the back of my car, a gas stove, and a trunk full of miscellaneous camping gear and food.

My well equiped Landrover, with all the comforts of home.

Before I start out I boil and filter a large amount of drinking water, make some sort of vegetable mush and rice to eat the first two nights, buy the freshest vegetables I can find, obtain bread, and make doubly sure I have enough toilet paper and tea. As I do not have a car fridge, I try to cool/freeze as many bottles of water as possible and use them in cool boxes to keep the cooked food, the vegetables and the cheese cool for at least the first day. The lack of fridge means no cold drinks, yogurt, milk, or cheese past the second day, but I do fairly well for myself despite that. That being said, I am quite lazy when it comes to cooking while camping, so my menu tends to minimize the need for the stove. Breakfast consists of tea, bread with peanut butter, and jam or bananas. Car camping means I can bring fragile things, so for lunch I have glorious avocados. I really like this aspect of car camping. Sandwiches with some combination of cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, green peppers and avocados suffice for lunch. I still have half of a sausage that my mother sent me from France, it provides some very welcome change from vegetables. The first two nights I eat what I cooked before I left, and the second two nights are instant noodles jazzed up with whatever veggies are still around. So far I haven’t gotten sick of it.

Much to my delight, my body has not yet rebelled against being in a car for 5 days at a time. I try to do whatever exercises are possible in a car. If I can park the car with the cheetahs on the far side, then I can open my door and do crunches, or get out and do leg lifts. However there are other considerations about the position and angle of the car. I need a decent view of surrounding prey, I want to be at an angle where I am not sitting in the sun, and in an area with internet access (access can disappear within 10 meters). Since I follow the cheetahs during the daylight hours, when I am camped it is dark, and I don’t feel comfortable doing much exercise in the dark (you never know what is watching) so my ability to do anything cardio is quite limited.

Spending 23 hours a day, 5 days a week in my car has made me appreciate things I never cared about before. Things like car cleanliness. I found myself diligently cleaning the inside of my car before my last follow, something I have rarely done before.

Camping means seeing some lovely sunsets

And some odd behavior, like a cheetah up a tree.

One of the best purchases I made was a smart phone. I bought it used and the primary language of the keyboard in Russian, so I have my doubts about its antecedents, but it has proved to be a lifeline. Having internet connection in the car while on your own for 5 days is great. There is the usefulness of being the do email and take care of issues without having to go back to base. But the mental health benefits should not be underestimated. Not only is it a way to stay entertained, but through facebook and twitter I can keep up to date on news and doings of friends and family which really helps lessen the feelings of isolation. I have become rather a manic user of Twitter, sending out live tweets of what the cheetahs are doing. It exposes a large audience to the work I am doing, and people in cramped soulless cubicles can get to the minute updates (with snarky commentary) on cheetahs eating a gazelle on the other side of the world. I have come a long way from the luddite tendencies of my youth, but that is no doubt a good thing.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 09:21PM

May and June 2014

The Advent of Dennis

At the end of March Dennis Minja arrived in the Serengeti to train to be Project Manager for Cheetah Project. After a couple weeks of training he took over finding the 20 cheetahs a month for the demographic data, freeing me up to focus on my multi day follows and the collection of data for my PhD.

The first follow I tried was out on the eastern edge of the park in an beautiful area called Barafu. I found two brothers named Richard and Armitage early in the morning, and followed them as they marked their territory, took a snooze in the long grass and then sauntered towards a small kopje (rocky outcropping). Unlike mothers with cubs, male cheetahs don't have to worry too much about other predators so they have a much more nonchalant and confident way of walking. They strolled up to the kopje and were about 30m away when they noticed there was a male lion resting in the shade of a tree. One of them did a quick about face and walked away but the other stood there staring at the lion for a while until it stood up. Then deciding discretion is the better part of valor, he too turned around and walked away.


They meandered down into a dry river bed where suddenly a lost baby wildebeest appeared. 20 seconds later they had it, and I was cursing as I tried to drive over extremely rough and broken ground to get to them to collect data. A hyena got there first and I arrived just as one of the brothers was chasing it and the other kept strangling the wildebeest. These two adult male cheetahs are more than a match for a lone hyena so it plopped itself down about 30m away and gazed at them mournfully as they devoured the kill.

Richard and Armitage devour the kill while the hyena hangs in the background

A long while later they decided they were done, and waddled slowly away with enormous bellies. Only then did the hyena dive in and get the scraps.

However, it didn't get to enjoy them long, as a male lion soon came up and stole what kill was left, and the hyena resumed its mournful gaze.

. Meanwhile there were some very touching Hollywood moments as Richard and Armitage cleaned the blood off of each others’ faces in the rain.

Disappeared. I spent an hour searching and then gave up. Not a magnificent start to my multi day follows, I had expected to struggle to refind them in the morning, but not to lose them in the middle of the afternoon. However I found them again at 8 am the next morning, still looking respectably fat. Freed from the need to find food, they set their minds to the very serious business of marking their territory. Which meant going around and peeing on just about everything. Rocks, trees, grass, dead trees, the ground, and possibly by mistake, each other. It is a marvel they could hold such copious amounts of liquid, in the dry season when water is scarce, it must be a challenge to keep everything marked. They were walking slowly across a grassy valley when another young lost wildebeest came bouncing over the horizon. Now they were still fat and didn't need to eat, but no one can resist chasing a baby wildebeest. Down it went, and this time they ate very slowly and with lots of breaks for deep breathing. Having dominated many a Thanksgiving dinner myself, I could sympathize. They hadn't eaten very much at all when another baby wildebeest came over the horizon. You could almost hear the mental wheels spinning about whether it was worth chasing that one as well. Thankfully prudence won out, and they settled back into eating their kill. The time between successful hunts is one of the things I am very interested in getting, so I felt quite pleased with myself and my 1 data point.

I got another data point a week or so later when I followed an old female named Courtney for 2.5 days. Courtney is one of my favorites, she and her sister having been some of the first cheetahs I spotted on my own back in 2004 when I first started as the research assistant on the cheetah project. I named her after a college friend of mine who had loved Africa and died in a car crash my junior year. So I was immensely pleased to see her again looking so fine and healthy. I found her on a kill near Zebra kopjes, and in 2 days I don't think she moved over a kilometre from the original position, although there were lions and hyenas nearby, and she caught another gazelle fawn the next day. Since she didn't move much neither did I and it was really interesting to watch how the presence of other animals near her changed during the day. I watched a male lion stalk and briefly chase a male eland, herds of gazelles and solitary hyenas trek across the valley. The first night I left her as the light was failing and camped right nearby at Zebra kopjes.

Courteny watches wildebeest go by

The next night when I was heading to the kopje I realized that a male lion was also going in that direction. This is the problem with waiting until it is almost dark to find a camping spot, if you need a backup, there aren't very many you can get to before it is full dark. Across the valley in W Barafu were some more kopjes that I could see in the dying light, and I headed towards one of them. I briefly contemplated just stopping the car and camping out in the open, but all of my primate urges cried out for some protection. A small tree, a rock, anything but being in the complete open. The second kopje I headed for was quite small, but was hiding about 6 more lions on its far side. There was only one more kopje I could see in what was left of the dying light, and I crossed my fingers that there were no lions and gunned across the plains towards it. It happened to be cat free, and big enough to provide shelter from the pervasive wind, which was about all I could ask for at that moment.

However this infestation of the best camping spots by lions may be a continuing problem since I need to stay with a cheetah as long as possible per day, meaning I will often be searching for somewhere to camp as it is getting dark. Perhaps I will figure out a way to arrange the car so I never need to get of it, thereby rendering myself lion proof.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 09:03PM

March and April 2014

Cheetah Hotspots

Cheetahs are very mobile and move around a lot in order to follow the gazelle migration. This means it can be a challenge to find them, and the areas where there are lots of them (cheetah hotspots), change from month to month. February and March of this year it was Ndutu. There were cheetahs everywhere. It was both delightful and frustrating to hear reports of tourists seeing twenty eight cheetahs in four days. Delightful because it was great to know there were so many cheetahs around, but frustrating because I was definitely not seeing twenty eight in four days, no matter how hard I tried. I did see quite a few though, including two mothers with small cubs.

High Season at Ndutu

Ndutu in the southern reaches of the Serengeti is a wonderful place. It boasts two lakes, two marshes, woodlands, plains, and spectacular views of the Ngorongoro highlands. If the rains are right during the wet season, it also boasts half a million wildebeest giving birth. This year the rains were right and the wildebeest congregated at and around Ndutu. These attractions make the area very popular with the tourists and new lodges and camps have proliferated in the past years. This means more tourists which means more cars. Because off road driving is allowed in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, cars can approach the wildlife no matter where they are. This becomes a problem when there are lots of cars around a cheetah or when drivers go too close.

While most drivers are respectful and professional around wildlife, it only takes a couple of ones going too close before the situation can get troublesome for a cheetah, especially mothers with small cubs. I saw some terrible and some wonderful behaviour by tour drivers in the high season. Some of the terrible behaviour involved MoneyPenny and her two small cubs.

Money Penny was born in 2011 to Xenia Onatopp, and spent her early life around Seronera. However once she reached independence she moved down to the Ndutu area and has been seen fairly regularly ever since. She attempted to raise a littler in 2013 and failed, but was seen in early February of this year with 3 small cubs. She now only has 2 but has safely guided them through the perils of the Ndutu high season which included scads of lions at Big Marsh, and an unprecedented number of tourist cars. One late afternoon I saw a cluster of tour cars and went over to investigate. It was only an hour or so until sunset and MoneyPenny was looking very skinny and hungry. She got up from under the tree and went in search of prey.

Her cubs followed her, and unfortunately so did the 10 tour cars. Jostling to get into good photographic position, they would drive and park in front of her as she walked so she have to turn to find another way to go. Meanwhile one of her cubs was a bit slow and was having trouble keeping up as all the cars were moving and driving around and occasionally coming between the cub and her mother.

MoneyPenny's cub follows her past the nearby cars

Cars completely encircle MoneyPenny and cubs as they try to rest under a tree

While she managed to guide her cubs through the melee, and I saw her on a kill the next day, not all cubs were so lucky. In early February a tour driver showed a bush where a small cheetah cub was lost or abandoned. I didn’t want to get too close and add to its stress and confusion, so I never actually got a glimpse, but other drivers definitely saw it. It was about 2-3 months old and must have somehow gotten separated from its mother. While it is impossible to say what led to it being separated from its family, the general presence and disturbance of cars in the area couldn’t have helped the situation. The fate of lost cubs is almost always death from predation or starvation.

On the brighter side, I also saw drivers being very respectful and professional around cheetahs. Some of the best behaviour I saw involved another mother at Ndutu. Shameka is about 4 years old and is on her second attempt to raise a litter to independence. She is rather shy and for most of February and March she was often seen at Ndutu with 5 little cubs. Having so many tiny cute cubs meant she was very popular with the tourists and often had cars with her all day. As she isn’t totally comfortable around cars, this meant she spent a lot of time being agitated, especially when they came close. We lost track of her for a couple of weeks and then in mid April I saw her in Hidden Valley, this time with only 2 cubs. She had lost 3 cubs and one of the remaining cubs was limping badly and had a problem with its eyes. When I saw her she was extremely skinny and trying to hunt, despite there not being much prey around.

A very skinny Shameka

There were between 5 and 8 cars gathered as she looked for prey but all of them stayed way back, most at least 100m away, but some were close to half a kilometer away. When she spotted three female Grant’s gazelle coming over the horizon, the space allowed her to hunt undisturbed. Only when she had brought down the prey did the cars approach. Since her cubs were so small, they had been left behind as she started to stalk, and after killing the gazelle, Shameka didn’t start eating, instead she started slowly moving in the direction where the cubs were. As is usual, the drivers had pulled up into a semi circle around her and the gazelle, but as they realized that their cars were between her and her cubs, the drivers started backing up and moving so that she had free access in the direction of the cubs. The cubs were at least a kilometer away and it took her a while to find them lead them back to the kill.

Shameka tries to drag her gazelle

Shameka walks past cars to find her cubs and bring them back to the carcass.

Since one cub was often stumbling this was a slow process, and as it became apparent that she wasn’t bringing them directly to the kill, one the drivers got on the radio and asked all the others to back up so she could approach the kill without having lots of cars around it. And much to my gratified surprise, all of the drivers did so. More than an hour after she left the kill, Shameka brought her cubs to gazelle and they started eating. And eating and resting and eating. By the time I left them 7 hours later, Shameka’s midsection had gone from looking like an hour glass (Belly size 3), to looking like she had swallowed a basketball (Belly size 14). To see drivers who are concerned about the animals they are watching and willing to sacrifice a close up shot so that a hungry cheetah can feed herself and her cubs made me very happy. I am not sure how she lost her other cubs or what happened to make the cub limp and have messed up eyes, but raising cubs is a hard job and we should do everything we can to avoid increasing a mother’s difficulties.

One of Shameka's cubs on the kill. Note the wonky eye.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 08:41PM

March 21, 2014

A couple of weeks ago I got my first puncture. It happened in a fairly good place, on a dry track, on my way back to the house. It took me quite a while to change the tire, but I got it done. The next day I took the flat tire to the garage to get fixed. I planned to drop it off and pick it up the next day when it was fixed. However when I was walking away the guy called me back. He had poured water over the tire to find the leak. He showed me the 5 or 6 small leaks in the top of the tire, and proclaimed that the tubeless tire was done, utterly done. This left me with only one spare tire. However I kept the dead tire on the back of car. I did occasionally wonder why I didn’t take it off of the car, but assumed it was just because I was lazy. However I got my answer a couple of days ago as I was driving across country from Zebra kopjes to Soit Le Montonyi. I hit a massive hole, and as what usually happened, the front tire bounced through on momentum, but when the back tire fell in, the car tilted and stuck.

Doesn't look so bad really.

Sighing I got out and surveyed the situation. The back left wheel hung in the air in a very large hole. Theoretically this is a easy situation to get out of. You jack up the car, put something in the hole to support the tire, lower the car, and drive off. I had two pieces of wood in the back of the car, 2 sandladders bolted to the roof rack and 2 spare tires. A working jack and a shovel. Pretty well prepared. I jacked up the car and with rather misguided optimism, slipped the smaller piece of wood under the tire, in hopes that would be enough.

Um, no. A small piece of wood isn't going to cut it.

I was started letting the jack down when I realized I had made two mistakes. The first was not putting a rock underneath the front tire and the second jacking off the body of the car and not the tire holders. This meant that when I jacked up the back of the car, the car tilted forward a little bit. This put the jack at an angle where the body of the jack was tight up against the back door. As the car was lowered down, the top of the jack scraped up the door. Scraped paint didn’t bother me too much, but the jack was heading towards the handle of the door, and if I kept lowering the car, it would hit the handle and tear it off. Hmmm. I tried to think if there was something I could wedge between the jack and the door to protect the handle. But there was no space to wedge anything in between. So the only other thing to do was the put enough stuff underneath the tire to lift it up enough so that I wouldn’t have to lower the car so much before it could take its own weight. I took the spare tire off the car and rolled it down the hole. Cleverly I hadn’t removed the other piece of wood and the shovel from under the sleeping platform before jacking up the car. Which meant that they were utterly out of reach, as I was unable to open the back door, it being firmly held shut by the jack. Cursing myself, I got down a sandladder and wedged it under the car’s tire.

The hole was so big even shoving a spare tire down it wasn't enough

With the spare tire, sandladder and the piece of wood in the hole, I decided to try driving out. Holding my breath, I lowered the car, and just as the jack got to the handle, the car carried its own weight and the jack dropped out. With a exhalation of relief I got into the car and tried to drive out without success. I put it into low range, and with a roar the car jerked out of the hole. Thank God. Now I needed to put everything back, which took a while. The whole area was covered in bushes with tiny little thorns, and my legs were thoroughly scratched to hell from scrabbling around. The jack had done a number on the back door, the handle no longer worked, and the door wouldn’t stay closed. I had to tie a piece of rope from the inner handle of the back door to the handle above one of the passenger door to keep it shut. Sweaty, tired and irritated, I drove directly to the nearest track and trundled home. So that is why I carry theoretically useless crap in the back of the car, you never know when you have to stick it down a hole. Two days later I am still tweezing thorns out of my legs.

The back of the car throughly shagged by the jack.


By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 08:22PM

March 2014

Rain is the source of life. For 7 months of the year the Serengeti is dry, brown, dusty, the animals look pinched and bony, and we worry about the whether 10,000L of rain water will see us through to the next rains. Two of the years I have been here, the rains didn’t come until February, and it got desperate for everyone. Rain at the end of the dry season ranks up there with bacon as one of the world’s magical smells. With rain comes green grass, and with green grass comes the migration. 1-2 million wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles head out to the short grass plains to have their young. The place springs into life. Suddenly there are flowers and careening dung beetles everywhere. Parts of the Serengeti look like paradise on earth. For my first 2 years here, I rejoiced with everyone else in the rains. Then came the rainy season of 2006-2007. Starting in December it rained and rained. Soils became saturated, roads became churned up mud holes, gulleys became impossible to cross, and getting around became much more difficult. The soils vary a lot in Serengeti. The hard pan of the short grass plains in the south and east of the park make for easy driving and little chance of getting stuck. However the soft sucking soils of the woodlands, long, and medium grass plains are a nightmare when wet. In the wet season most of the cheetahs are on the short grass plains. However Seronera is surrounded by soft soil, and one needs to get from there to and from the short grass plains. Every day the calculation of looking for cheetahs was very much complicated by considerations of where I could and couldn’t drive, and how to cross the gulleys to get to where I needed to go. Instead of the mornings being filled with the possibility of finding lots of cheetahs, they were filled with white knuckle driving through sloppy mud, filled with desperate prayers that I wouldn’t grind the bottom of the car against the high point of an erosion gulley masquerading as a road, that I wouldn’t hit a huge hole and lose precious momentum when powering through a vast expanse of soaked soil, or that I wouldn’t slide into a muddy ditch. All of this might have made for fun added adventure, but the killer was that I wasn’t finding cheetahs. The places I could go were not the places they wanted to be. Months went by without me making my quota. The last half of every month was an increasingly desperate search for unseen cheetahs, and attempts to go to new places in hopes they would be there. Instead I got stuck.

Getting stuck in 2011

And stuck again. Getting unstuck involves a lot of jacking up the car, a lot of groveling and digging in mud, and A LOT of wood. Wood to put under the jack so it doesn’t sink into the mud. Wood to put under each tire to give them traction. Wood to fill the huge hole your tires are in to lift the body of the car off of the ground. It is exhausting dirty work, and every time I put my whole weight on the lever to jack the car up I remembered stories of the handle flying off and breaking jaws. When I stuck my whole upper body under the car to dig out the differential, I heard my boss’s words about cars falling off of jacks and crushing people. Sometimes I managed to get myself out, and sometimes I had to call for help. While people are willing to help, it is a pain and time consuming, and there was always the possibility I’d get stuck somewhere out of radio and cell phone range. All in all, that wet season has given me a deep wariness of mud.

Laura Simpson jacks up the car to try to get us unstuck, 2011

Thus whenever I see or hear rain, I don’t automatically rejoice, instead I get nervous about the conditions of the roads. For the first 10 days I was here, it hadn’t rained much and things were getting dusty. However the third week of February, I was down at Ndutu at the southern edge of the park. Ndutu is a magical land of cheetahs, wildebeest, and a lodge I can stay at that has showers, cold drinks, and pork chops. It had locally rained quite a bit during the day, which turned the road into a slalom, and I’d resurrected long unused mud driving skills (keep it in second gear, gun it through the really wet bits, don’t over compensate with steering when you spin out, and try to avoid the trees). That night when the heavens opened and it rained 86 mm, despite being in a dry comfy bed with a belly full of lamb chops, I was awake with the familiar knot in the stomach, wondering about the state of the road across the plains. My car has a lot of great features, but at the moment mud readiness is not one of them. While I have a working jack (always helpful) all I have to put under the tires are 2 measly sand ladders. I scoured cheetah house for boards, but not one could I find. This lack of preparedness makes me very nervous. There are two roads out of Ndutu. One heads northish to Naabi Gate which is the official entry to Serengeti. The other road heads south towards the NCA. Both meet up with the main road, but if you are heading to Naabi, the southern route adds about 30 km. However the southern road is on hard pan for most of the way, while I have learned that the northern road is a treacherous combination of muddy ruts that are really hard to get out of, and sudden massive hyena holes. Some of the most stressful driving of my life has been on that road in sloppy mud. Deciding that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, I headed home via the southern route, making a trip that usually takes an hour and 45 minutes over 3 hours long. But I didn’t get stuck.

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