Real PhD data! Finally.
May and June 2014
The Advent of Dennis
At the end of March Dennis Minja arrived in the Serengeti to be the research assistant for the Cheetah Project (he is now Project Manager). 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 valour, 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. 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. 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. I am a sucker for male bonding, and cheetah brothers are very strongly bonded. It was mid afternoon by this point and the brothers crossed the river. I couldn't cross there with my car, and it took me about 10 minutes to find a place where I could, and when I got back to where I left the cheetahs I couldn't find them.
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.
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.
Courtney eyes passing wildebeest
The male lion goes after an eland. Apologies for the poor quality, they were very far away.
Richard decides not to tangle with a male lion
Richard and Armitage demolish the wildebeest while the hyena looks on
Richard and Armitage wash off the blood