Day vs night – leopards and baboons

Lenguya Laiyon

Primates are among the most widely distributed mammals globally. Their highly adaptive and complex behaviors have enabled them to survive some of the most degraded habitats. While primates are adored by many people worldwide, majority of developing world and farmers view them as nuisance, as they steal food by raiding crops and houses. 

In Kenya, olive and yellow baboons are also known as nuisance primates. However, in Laikipia, where the Leopard Conservation Program (Uhifadhi Wa Chui) is based, crop raiding by baboons is rare because livestock husbandry is the agricultural norm. Instead, baboons will very occasionally predate on young goats and sheep, but mostly go unnoticed by locals.

Although olive baboons constitute one of the preferred prey species for leopards, generally, few studies have been conducted on the interactions of leopards and olive baboons. This is attributed largely to leopard’s rare, shy and elusive nature and nocturnal behavior.

Likewise, baboons are hard to habituate and study. Even so, recent technological advancement has improved studying leopards. Remote cameras have proved to be effective in understanding such interactions, as opposed to conventional distance methods that are less reliable in studying elusive and shy species such as leopards.

In the Laikipia landscape, olive baboons play a key role in the ecosystem structure and function as seed dispersers and prey species for the African leopard.

However, for a leopard, olive baboons are more than prey, they can also predate. Leopards rarely succeed in hunting baboons during the day, because olive baboons have high cognitive ability, are aggressive with long sharp canines as defense weapons, and the large body size and the gregarious social system serve as effective tool to ward leopards off through early predator detection and mobbing. Baboons ability to form aggressive mobs can also result in the death of the leopard on the receiving end.

At night, the tables turn.

Like leopards, baboons are not afraid of height and at night they recede into the rocky kopjes cliffs, and at the extreme branches of tall acacia trees for protection. Yet the climbing ability and agility of leopards allows them to neutralize the advantage of the baboons. Leopards also have far better vision at night, allowing them to hunt successfully when the baboons are most vulnerable.

This back-and-forth, day-and-night dual shapes the population density and sociality of both species.

My strong passion and love for leopards and primates, and my determination to conserve them brought me to the Uhifadhi Wa Chui last year. I remember telling Dr. Nicholas Pilfold, San Diego Zoo Global Scientist: “I want to study the interactions of the olive baboons and the leopards here in Loisaba Conservancy and Mpala Research Centre.” 

He replied, “I like it. Baboons can cause a lot of problems to our leopard study, even destroying the cameras, but let’s find out more about their interaction with leopards”. 

This was the first step of my journey. I also sought mentorship to fill the primate-predator knowledge gap with a Kenyan primatologist, Dr. Stan Kivai, who is my advisor for my Master’s thesis at the University of Nairobi, where this research will be the basis of my dissertation. 

Hopefully, my study can help cast a light on the interactions of leopards and baboons, which have long-shaped the carrying-capacity of each species in Laikipia. With this information we can more accurately determine target population numbers for a leopard recovery strategy.

Lenguya Laiyon is the Research Coordinator for the Leopard Conservation Program in Laikipia County, Kenya.

Videos below: 

A curious baboon investigates SDZG remote cameras on Loisaba Conservancy, Kenya.

A large male baboon aggressively chases a smaller subadult leopardess at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya.