I’ve seen this sequence time and again in any number of wildlife documentaries: There’s a cheetah. It stalks a gazelle, body slung low, shoulder blades pumping like pistons. It launches forward with astonishing acceleration, head level to the ground, spine flexing dramatically, hips and shoulders swinging out at impossible angles. The cheetah reaches out with a paw, trips the doomed gazelle, and clamps its jaws onto its throat, closing its windpipe and suffocating it. Within a minute, it’s all over. End scene.
Except, it’s often not quite over.
Unlike, say, hyenas or wild dogs that just tear into their prey alive, big cats strangle their victims first. That might seem more merciful, but only when done correctly. Adult cheetahs know how long to hang on before a gazelle gasps its last, but youngsters do not. “Watching them fail is brutal,” says Anne Hilborn, an ecologist who studies wild cheetahs. “There was one time when it went on for around 30 minutes. The poor thing was bleating, and I was just sitting in the car going: Kill it! Just kill it!”
Cheetahs can be clumsy. They take their licks, too. Their slight frames facilitate their epic sprints, but also make them easy targets for more powerful predators like lions and hyenas. Cubs are particularly vulnerable. “Lions and hyenas account for 70 percent of cub mortality. They just get hammered,” says Hilborn. “A lion will find their den and just kill them all. I’ve seen mothers with five cubs and, two months later, there’s just one. And I’ve seen abandoned cheetah cubs, lost and chirping for their mothers. That’s really hard.”
This is the view of nature that Hilborn sees during her field work—raw, unforgiving, and uncensored. And it’s the view that I get beamed into my phone while sipping my morning coffee, because Hilborn regularly live-tweets her field observations, using the unaccountably strong phone signal that blankets the Serengeti. Hers is one of my favorite accounts—a transportive experience that peppers the usual snark, self-promotion, and mansplaining of Twitter with pictures of cheetahs grooming, lions yawning, and hyenas mating—badly.
To me, Hilborn’s a David Attenborough for the social-media age. Her feed combines the raw immediacy of a webcam but without the tedium, the expertise and drama of a wildlife documentary but without the over-polished artifice, and the majesty of nature but with the viciousness and incompetence that is often edited out. “I grew up watching documentaries, but they gloss over that,” she says.
Hillborn grew up surrounded by wildlife, too. Her father, Ray Hilborn from the University of Washington, does stock assessments for Alaskan salmon, and Anne helped from an early age. When she was 12, she followed him to the Serengeti, on a trip to study wildebeest poaching, and fell in love with the place. “You can just watch ecology happen,” she says. “There are millions of large herbivores, six species of cats, hyenas, jackals… you can watch everything from grass and dung beetles, to lions and wildebeest.”
When Hillborn graduated from college, she bee-lined back to Tanzania to work as a research assistant for Sarah Durant, a friend of the family. Durant runs the Serengeti Cheetah Project, a long-term initiative to document the lives and health of the region’s cheetahs. Hilborn’s first jobs: find cheetahs, take notes, collect poop. That, it turns out, is much more difficult than it seems.
“You’re parked up to 50 meters away,” she says. “You have to see where it pooped, wait for it to leave, get your car between the poop and the cheetah, get out on the far side, and then look. They usually poop in long grass, and it’s very hard to identify the right clump of grass. So, I usually ended up smelling for it. It’s quite stinky. I would crouch and walk in circles. I’m wearing gloves, and waddling about the Serengeti, sniffing grass, with an ice-cream scoop and a tube of ethanol. It’s really embarrassing to do that in front of tourists because it’s completely un-obvious what you’re doing.”
Hilborn returned to the Serengeti as a master’s student, and most recently as a Ph.D. student. She’s now studying how a cheetah’s success as a hunter is influenced by its individual behavior, the density of its prey, and other factors. Other scientists have done similar studies for top predators like wolves and pumas, but cheetahs are not top predators. They take out gazelle and impala, but are themselves threatened by hyenas and lions. They sit in a middle rung, ecologically closer to raccoons and possums than to other big cats. And by studying cheetahs, Hilborn hopes to get some insights into these charismatic mesofauna, which are so often ignored because they lack the glamor of the apex predators.
Of course, cheetahs are hard to ignore entirely. Their coats are beautiful, their behavior is fascinating, and their chases are breathtaking. And then, there’s the purring. “The first time you hear a cheetah purr, it’s startling. It’s like a house cat, but louder and throatier,” she says.
“Cheetahs are great, but I’m trying to get people to like hyenas and the smaller carnivores, too,” she adds. “Bring ‘em in with cheetahs and sideswipe them with talk about pseudoclits.” (Female spotted hyenas have massively enlarged clitorises that look like penises; they give birth through the tips.)
Even cheetahs can become boring if you have to watch them for days on end, while sitting alone in a vehicle. Thankfully, Hilborn quickly found a way of making the hours go by more pleasantly: Twitter. She joined it reluctantly, as a self-described social-media curmudgeon. “Then, I realized I had a camera, there was cool stuff happening, and I had a smartphone with connection. In the Serengeti! There’s no running water but you can check your email in your Land Rover,” she says. “And I thought: Oh my god, I can live-tweet my field research, this is going to be amazing!”
Hilborn told the world about the exploits of her cheetahs, their successes and failures, their distinctive quirks, and the daily minutiae that nature documentaries gloss over. And only once did she lose track of her field subject because she was checking out her feed. “When you’re following a cheetah in long grass, they can disappear really easily,” she says. “I may or may not have been tweeting and when I looked up, he was gone.”
These field embarrassments are more common than you might think. This July, Hilborn and her lab-mate Chris Rowe coined #fieldworkfail on Twitter to publicize their most cringe-worthy field mishaps. The hashtag took off. Other scientists—archaeologists, zoologists, geologists, and more—chimed in with tales of broken vehicles, lost equipment, smeared bodily fluids, slapstick injuries, unpredictable weather, diseases, parasites, destructive animals, and sometimes combinations of the above.
“It was just three days of absolute hilarity,” she says. “It was so entertaining and gratifying to think that whatever stupid thing you’ve done, someone else has done something worse.”