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 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

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.

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