By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times science reporter
SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK, Tanzania — If studying cheetahs sounds like a glamorous job, consider that Anne Hilborn spends a lot of her time looking for poop.
On a good day, the Seattle woman will spot one of the big cats doing its business in short grass, where the specimen is easy to find. On a bad day, the cheetahs squat in tall grass.
"Then I have to get down on my hands and knees and sniff around until I find it," Hilborn explains.
On this day, she would be happy to simply glimpse one of the animals.
It's about 11 a.m. and she's been bumping across the savannah in her Land Rover for nearly five hours. The morning cool has evaporated and a shimmer blurs the horizon.
"This time of day, the cheetahs just tend to plop down," Hilborn says.
The 25-year-old has been chasing the world's fastest land animal since she graduated with a zoology degree from the University of Washington three years ago. She works for the Serengeti Cheetah Project, launched in 1974 to monitor the threatened species.
Hilborn's main job is to search for cheetahs and note their locations and conditions. Analyzing DNA in dung is a new effort to figure out which males are fathering the most cubs, and gauge the species' genetic vigor and prospects for survival.
Already wiped out in most of Asia, cheetah numbers are dwindling across Africa as their grassland habitat is plowed or fenced for western-style ranches.
In its early days, the cheetah project provided some of the first insights into the species' life history. Today, the emphasis is on conservation and habitat protection. A recent sighting proved that cheetahs are still able to migrate from one protected area to another, through corridors of private land.
"It's a critical time, because we need to keep those corridors open," says Sarah Durant, the British biologist who runs the project.
Hilborn is the project's only field worker. Her study area covers 850 square miles of southern Serengeti savannah, an area more than twice the size of Mount Rainier National Park.
"In theory we're trying to figure out how many cheetahs there are in Tanzania and what we can do to save them," she says as she stashes her gear in the Land Rover at dawn. "But in reality we have only the vaguest idea of how many there are because they are so hard to count."
The best estimates are that 10,000 to 14,000 of the spotted cats remain in the world, and their status is far more perilous than those of Africa's famed lions and leopards. Lions and hyenas prey on cheetahs and steal their kills. Only one in 20 cubs survives to adulthood.
Gazelles burst into a run
The sun's first rays gild the tops of acacia trees as Hilborn veers off the rutted track and heads across country. Guinea fowl scatter like matrons fleeing a runaway bus. In the distance, a knot of Thomson's gazelles burst into a run.
Hilborn kills the engine, pushes her glasses up on her forehead and lifts her binoculars.
"Cheetah snacks," she says, pointing out several calves not much taller than a golden retriever.
But these gazelles aren't displaying the nervous jitters that indicate a predator nearby.
Hilborn turns the key and the Land Rover rattles back to life. In the back are jerry cans of water and diesel, a well-used jack and several boards scavenged from a bookcase-building project.
The latter come in handy when you're mired to the axles in mud.
When her father was visiting from Seattle this winter, the pair spent two hours digging after the Land Rover got stuck near a marsh. Only later did they realize three male lions were lounging in a nearby clump of grass.
But the perils of field work are nothing new to Ray Hilborn. The UW biologist pressed his children into service every summer for salmon surveys in Alaska. When Anne was 12, he transplanted the family to Serengeti National Park for six months while he studied wildebeest populations.
That's where the Seattle seventh-grader met Durant.
Anne was enamored of Durant's job. "I kept asking: Can I come work for you when I graduate?" Hilborn said.
"Serengeti" is derived from a Masai word that means endless plains.
The only landmark in the area Hilborn is canvassing is a cluster of flat-topped acacias that rise from the prairie like a pagoda. The grass is tall, due to unusually heavy rains.
"So you can't really see cheetahs unless they're standing up or walking," Hilborn says.
Unlike most African predators, cheetahs hunt by day. Hilborn has learned to spot these supermodels of the cat world by their bowling-pin silhouette when seated: A small head atop an elongated body.
Something with that shape catches her eye. She pauses in her sweep, then lets out an amused snort.
It's a kori bustard, a 3-foot-tall bird that paces the grasslands like a cop on his beat.
"I make plenty of mistakes," Hilborn says cheerfully.
Tracking cheetahs is a lonely, gritty job, said project leader Durant, who used to do all the field work herself.
Most of her early assistants lasted about a year. "A lot of people say it's their dream job — until they actually do it," she said.
Durant, who holds dual appointments at the Zoological Society of London and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, now spends most of her time analyzing data, overseeing other research projects and scouting for money to keep the work going.
The cheetah program is largely funded by Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Hilborn's $500-a-month salary includes free housing in a research compound in central Serengeti. Equipped with running water and electricity when they were built in the 1960s, the houses now have neither.
Social life consists of pot lucks with other biologists. Trashy magazines from home are cause for celebration.
Just when all seems lost
Hilborn is about to give up on spotting any cats today when she hits the brakes and grabs her binoculars.
"Just when all seems lost." she says. "Hi, cutie."
A female cheetah is sitting in the grass 100 yards away. Her mouth is open and her ears are twitching to flick away the ever-present flies.
Hilborn inches the Land Rover forward and stops about 40 feet from the animal. Cheetahs are naturally shy creatures, but those that live in the Serengeti have become blasé about tourists and their vehicles. A cheetah once climbed on top of Hilborn's Land Rover and made a deposit.
"It was the easiest pooh sample I ever got."
Hilborn grabs her camera and waits for the cheetah to stand. Languidly, the cheetah obliges and Hilborn snaps off several broadside shots. Like fingerprints, the unique spot patterns allow her to identify each of the 60 adults and 90 youngsters in her study area.
If she doesn't recognize an animal, she runs the photos through a computer program that matches spots and spits out a name. But in this case she simply rifles through a wooden box filled with photos pasted to index cards.
"It might be Mouse," she says, pulling out a blue card.
Indeed, the spots align.
Hilborn begins filling out her standard cheetah report, recording everything from coat condition (no mange) to belly size (8 on a 14-point scale). Except when they have cubs, female cheetahs are solitary, ranging over areas larger than Seattle. Males generally live in small groups called coalitions.
Named for her squeaky voice, Mouse keeps quiet as she rolls in the grass, sits up again, then slowly begins stalking a group of gazelles. A tame cheetah in Kenya was clocked running 64 mph. In the wild, the animals may go even faster in short bursts.
But Mouse is not very racy today. She makes a half-hearted lunge at the gazelles, who easily scatter to safety. A second charge is even more lackluster.
"I think I'll leave her in peace," Hilborn says, steering the Land Rover back the way she came.
This will be her last year on the cheetah project.
"I want to leave while I still love it," she says.
Before the isolation and dust and logistical headaches sour her appreciation of the beauty. And before the gulf between her life in Africa and the lives of friends and family in Seattle becomes too wide to bridge.
"That's really the hardest thing," she says, threading the Land Rover through a herd of zebra and gazelles. "That disconnect."
A lost wildebeest calf stands alone, so thin it seems little more than head and legs.
"He'll be vulture food by tomorrow," Hilborn says.
The calf stares forlornly as the Land Rover retreats across the savannah.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cheetah Watch Campaign
The campaign recruits tourists to help track Africa's cheetah populations. With a digital photograph, date and approximate location, it's usually possible to identify individual animals.
More information is available at http://www.wcs.org/international/Africa/cheetahs