This Scientist Live-Tweets Cheetah Hunts

Documenting nature in all its beauty, viciousness, hilarity and boredom

Blaine Harrington III/Corbis

As beautiful as nature documentaries can be, wild animals are often far more brutal and hilariously clumsy than the camera may make them seem. Not to mention that the actual fieldwork can be punishingly tedious, ecologist Anne Hilborn tells Ed Yong for The Atlantic. But with 20,000 tweets under her belt, Hilborn gives more than 3,000 followers a glimpse at what it's really like studying animals in the Serengeti.

“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,” Hilborn tells Yong. “And I thought: Oh my god, I can live-tweet my field research, this is going to be amazing!”

Hilborn spends a lot of her time studying wild cheetahs in the Serengeti. But being in the field isn't all beautiful vistas and dramatic narration. More often, it means weeks of waking up before dawn and sitting alone in a car waiting for a cheetah to show its spotted face, chase down a kill, or even just to poop.

As Hilborn tells Yong:

“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’s accounts are an insightful look into the hilarity and frustrations of fieldwork, with stories about tourists harassing cheetahslions screwing up a cheetah hunt, or a pair of hyenas unsuccessfully having sex.

“I grew up watching documentaries, but they gloss over that,” Hilborn tells Yong.

While Hilborn certainly tweets about cheetahs for fun, she also aims to educate people about their welfare. Cheetahs are one of Africa’s iconic species, but scientists haven’t studied the speedy cats in the same way as other predators like lions and hyenas, which steal food and even kill cheetahs in the wild. Putting them in animal reservations can be tricky because cheetahs need big tracts of land to hunt, John R. Platt writes for Scientific American.

“They cover up to 800 miles in their movements,” Cheetah Conservation Fund founder Laurie Marker tells Platt. “The reserves in Africa usually aren’t that big.”

Left unprotected, cheetahs are often killed by farmers trying to protect their livestock from the big cats. While conservationists have stabilized cheetah populations in some countries like Namibia, the remaining 10,000 cheetahs left on Earth are still threatened by farmers, poachers and diseases brought on by inbreeding, Platt reports. But while some programs work to raise awareness about the cheetah’s plight across Africa, Hilborn hopes her insights can educate people across the world about the big cats, Yong writes.

But to both track and and share pictures of cheetahs is rarely an easy task. “When you’re following a cheetah in long grass, they can disappear really easily,” Hilborn tells Yong. “I may or may not have been tweeting and when I looked up, he was gone.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.