Sighting: Leopard left for dead by baboon troop
Location: Linyanti Concession
Date: October 2006
Observers: Thuto Moutloatse & Iris Pfeiffer
While on an afternoon game drive in the north eastern parts of the Linyanti Concession during a Migration Routes Exploration, guide Thuto Moutloatse spotted a female leopard moving through the dry mopane. As they watched her she proceeded to stalk and unsuccessfully chase a tree squirrel. She was lactating - indicating cubs left in a lair somewhere - and was clearly hungry (from the obviously gaunt appearance and her behaviour in opportunistically stalking small prey).
The leopard then spotted a troop of baboons foraging in a strung out line as they too moved through the mopane woodland. She managed to stalk within distance of the rearguard of the troop and then rushed at the young baboon brining up the rear which she killed. As Thuto moved the vehicle forward to re-establish a view, they discovered the entire baboon troop of around 30 animals had absolutely overwhelmed the leopard and were in the process of attempting to rescue the attacked member of the troop and kill the leopard which was invisible at the bottom of the pile. The noise was incredible and the chaos and aggression of the attack bewildering. The young baboon lay lifeless to one side and as the vehicle rounded the corner part of the baboon troop backed off a little, leaving a clearly injured leopard lying still in the grass.
Over the next two and a half hours the baboon troop surrounded the leopard and continued to harass it, the charge being lead by the large males and several smaller pretenders to the throne. Amazingly, the leopard lay prone almost shamming death although visibly still alive. Having lost the momentum of the initial attack first one baboon would rush in and scuff the prone predator and then another would take the advantage of attacking from the other side.
Eventually the bulk of the troop moved off leaving just one large male and a smaller subordinate female. Although it appeared as if the leopard was by this stage mortally wounded, and this was certainly the perception by those watching spellbound from the vehicle, the larger baboon was cautious in his approach of the leopard while the female simply watched from a safe distance. Curiosity or thoughts of revenge got the better of the larger baboon however and he eventually did approach what he thought was a dying leopard. Before he could scuff her again however, the leopard sprung onto its hind legs and attacked the baboon, forcing both the male and female to flee. Having achieved this, the leopard then picked up the carcass of the baboon killed before the skirmish erupted, shook it and walked off carrying the carcass in its jaws as if nothing untoward had happened at all. As Thuto commented: "The most incredible thing about his sighting for me was to see the leopard play dead for about 2 ½ hours as the baboons harassed her - she knew that if she retaliated the whole troop would kill her."
While the adrenalin, action and excitement made this a spectacular sighting, it is also of interest since baboons do not feature high on the list of leopard prey. In areas where medium- and small-sized ungulates are common, these are the preferred prey and baboons make up only a very low percentage of kills. Even in areas where this ungulate prey class is at a low density, baboons do not make up an important portion of leopard prey and alternative species such as dassies are taken instead. The reasons for this of course are the social structure of baboon troops and the powerful and aggressive nature of the male baboons in the troop. Most attacks on baboons by leopard take place in low light conditions when the leopard can take refuge from the response of the troop. Attacks in daylight end in mobbing behaviour of the kind witnessed here, or even leopard fatalities at the hands of baboons that have been recorded all over Africa.
On this occasion, this specific female took a huge risk that had it turned out differently could easily have left her unable to fend for her cubs.