Oh man, the highs and lows of fieldwork...
In March sometime
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 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 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.
Most of the research in Serengeti is based at Seronera, which is a small settlement in the center of the park. It boasts the headquarters for the parks authority (Tanapa), a lodge, support housing, a small shop, an office for the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and a bit further off, the research center. Each project has a concrete 3 bedroom house build by the Germans in the 60’s. For example Cheetah House is next to Lion House, and over the way from Disease House. The 60’s were a plush, raging time of hot running water, electricity, and tennis. Today the houses have taps, but no running water, the tennis court is crumbling, and we get generator power from 7-10 pm. At least that is the theory. When I was here from 2004-2007, there was probably 9 months when the generator was actually working. Thus almost all of the houses have solar power systems of various fanciness. When I arrived at Cheetah House 5 weeks ago, the solar power wasn’t working, the house internet was out, and the fridge had been broken for months. Fixing things in the Serengeti is never easy. Materials and supplies have to be brought out from Arusha on the monthly resupply trips, and people who know how to fix things are rare (I am not one of them). Thus a technician had to be flown out to readjust the satellite dish for the internet (we suspect baboons had been jumping on it and put it out of alignment). I hauled out 3 massive solar batteries from Arusha (they liberally splashed acid all over the back of the car during the trip), but needed wires sent out from Arusha and help to set them up. Thankfully so far other people have had similar problems at the same time, so I have been able to split costs of getting people and materials out here. It really drives home how little practical skills I have to attempt to set something up or fix something and then realize I have royally buggered it up in the attempt. The solar system is a case in point. Because I blew the charge controller trying to swap the batteries out myself, it took even longer to get power during the day. But I am happy to report that I managed it and now I have power and therefore internet ALL DAY LONG. Crazy.
I haven’t been able to do anything about the fridge yet, so have basically become a reluctant vegan. Eggs and ultra heat treated milk are the only animal products I brought out. While I acquired a tolerance for warm coke last time I was here, it would be nice to have cold drinks. And cheese. Mmmm cheese… The options are to fix the broken propane fridge, get a new one, or get a solar powered fridge. I priced a new propane fridge at about $700 + $40 a month in fuel, which seemed a bit steep. However when I looked into a solar fridge (fridge, 2 batteries, a solar panel, a technician coming out to install it etc..) I got quoted over $4000. Ouch. Looks like it will be propane after all.
The lack of fridge means the vegetables go off rather quickly, and you quickly readjust standards when it comes to what is edible. My general attitude is that if it isn’t completely moldy, it can be salvaged. A few weeks ago however, I found an unexpected creature in the carrots. Not sure what it was going for but I'd never had a millipede in the veggies before.
The end of February was tough on the cheetah finding front. I had 20 days to find 20 different cheetah groups. Sometimes finding cheetahs is fairly easy, and sometimes trying to find them becomes a slog of 8-10 hours of driving a day, desperately trying to figure out where they might be. There were a lot of cheetahs at Ndutu in February, and because there were so many tourists there, I stopped looking for cheetahs and just started looking for clumps of cars clustered around cheetahs. Despite that, the last couple of days of the month were a tense sprint to find 3 sightings in 3 days. In the end I failed and only got 17 for the month.
Solar System: Fixed!
Cheetahs: Not quite as abundant as I’d hoped
The Landrover, back in the bush where it belongs.
Polly's male cub
MoneyPenny getting all cute with her cubs
Emily walks along the shores of Lake Ndutu
Laura looking all nice and fat at Barafu.
Millipede in my veggie rack