Anne Hilborn

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Life on the Serengeti Cheetah Project: Water, power, and front yard visitors

I could bang on and on about life on the Serengeti Cheetah Project, mostly because I spent a lot of time doing it and loved it so much.  I am going to try to condense years into a few blog posts, this one focusing on some the logistics of living in the Serengeti.  The majority of my time in Serengeti was spent in 2 chunks,  3.5 years as a research assistant between 2004-2007, and  another 9 months doing my own fieldwork for my PhD in 2014.



Our base is Cheetah House at Serengeti Wildlife Research Center in the middle of Serengeti.  Most research projects each have a three bedroom concrete house, built by the Germans in the 60’s and deteriorating at various speeds ever since.


When they were built there was a pipeline from a spring in the northern part of the Serengeti that provided running water to the research center, so the houses were built around running water, there are sinks, a bath tub, and a toilet in all the houses.  However I think the last time water ran through the pipeline ran was in late 2004, and before then it was only intermittent, so it couldn’t be counted on.  

Kitchen which has a sink but no running water

Bathroom set up to take bucket baths.  Water is stored in the white 5 gallon buckets.

Thus we all depend on rain water, and each house has a battery of water catchment barrels.  There are two seasons in Serengeti, the wet from about Dec to May when the majority of the rain falls and we need to store enough water to get us through the dry season from May-Nov.  Cheetah House has 10,000 L of storage, and in the wet season we could be profligate with water.  

Now profligate in Serengeti when each bucket of water has to be hauled into the house by hand means something very different than profligate water use in the West.  Profligate in Serengeti in the wet season means washing my hair more frequently and using more than 2-3 gallons to do so.  Using the inside toilet at night (instead of the outhouse ) and flushing it with clean water instead of dirty washing water.  Having non essential washing done like sleeping bags and occasionally washing the encrusted mud from the inside of the Landrover.  That is about it, that is about as profligate as it gets.  In the dry season these things get cut, all toilet related activities happen in the outhouse or outside.  Actually an outhouse is the best water saver we have.   On a bad gastrointestinal day you can use 10 gallons flushing the toilet…but none of that is needed when you have an outhouse.  There were usually only 1-2 people living in the house and our water use was about 100L or 25 gallons a day.  



Not surprisingly with such a limited and vital resources, water is a constant concern in Serengeti.  We have locks on the taps of the water tanks. Not only to keep humans from stealing water, but also thirsty animals.  The main problem is with baboons with their crafty intelligence and opposable thumbs, but lions once opened an unlocked tap and rudely did not close it again once they were done.  Elephants can be a big worry as they can rip the top of the tank-no need for taps.  There was a male elephant who did that to several tanks around the research center and I was paranoid our tanks were next.  I would wake up at night at any stomach rumble or scrunch of branches, convinced there was a thirsty elephant outside.  Problem with elephants is that there isn’t much you can do to stop them doing what they set their mind to.  Thankfully our house was spared but others lost not only the water, but the use of a water tank which are not cheap or easy to replace.



Power is another absorbing concern.  Thankfully there is a lot of sun so solar power is an option.  An expensive and cumbersome option that involves lots of extremely heavy batteries filled with toxic acid, but an option none the less.  Generators are the other option, and the research center does have one that supplies power to the whole community from 7pm-10pm every night.  The 9 months I was there in 2014 it was wonderfully reliable and we could count on it to charge all the devices.  However in the 3.5 years I was there from 2004-2007, the generator worked for maybe 6 of those months.  So I learned to always be grateful for lights coming on but not rely on it.  Thus every research house has a solar system, some of which are better than others.  Cheetah House usually had a middling system with limited power in the bedrooms and bathroom.  It wasn’t great but it was enough.




Serengeti is pretty isolated and we get the majority of our supplies from the city of Arusha some 300 km away.  Due to a at least half of the road being paved by 2005, the trip now usually takes less than 8 hours but I would still only go every 4 to 6 weeks.  There I bought dry goods, fresh vegetables, cheese and yogurt, huge amounts of juice and anything else needed for the next month.  We have a small gas fridge but most vegetables are left out, and it is a race to eat them before they get too wrinkled or rotten.  After years of this I developed a curious mentality where I couldn’t actually eat a good looking  vegetable because I was used to eating the worst looking ones first.  I remember once when I was back in the US  holding a lovely eggplant in my hand and actually considering putting it back in the fridge for a couple of days because it was too nice to eat.  


Pantry after an Arusha trip

2 weeks later...

The living room of Cheetah Hosue where I was able to indulge my passion for using bits of dead things as decoration.  Sadly other memebrs of Cheetah Project have more pedestrian tastes in home decor, and most of the skulls and bits of gazelle leg are gone.

A millipede seems to have gotten a taste for my carrots.

The verandah of Cheetah House is a great place to sit and watch wildlife.  Below is a selection of pictures taken from the verandah or the living room.

The tedium and frustration of doing accounts can be lessened if there is an elephant in the front yard

One of my favorite things ever is to hear the grunting of the wildebeest migration from the house.


Pic by Brandon Chasco

Front porch of Cheetah House

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Pic by Brandon Chasco

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Sadly the only pictures I have of the water tanks feature Marten, who kindly came over and went snorkling in one of my tanks to attach at tap to the bottom.  A most useful tap that would allow me to actually access the 5000 L of water, a tap I had neglected to install before filling the tank.

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Though a herd in the dry season will set  me fretting about my water tanks

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Not only do we get elephants, but also their closest relative the rock hyrax, on and around the house.

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Grumpy old male buffalo are common in the dry season, and need to be given lots of space.  They are one of the reasons we don't walk around much.

Working in Serengeti is challenging in many ways, but living and working in such an incredible place more than makes up for it, and keeps drawing many of us back.