Baboon and Leopard Habitat Use in Response to Predator-Prey Interactions, Environmental Features, and Ecotourism Settlements
Understanding how environmental characteristics, resource availability, and predator-prey interactions influence animals’ habitat choices is a fundamental goal of behavioral ecology. Growing human presence in wild landscapes, however, may alter these choices in unexpected ways. My study focuses on habitat use in Serengeti baboons and their main predator, leopards, which is often difficult to study empirically due to leopards’ elusiveness. Ecotourism may be influencing how leopards and baboons distribute themselves, as tourist settlements offer enticing food and water resources for baboons, yet humans may be avoided as a potential danger. Using seven years of images from 202 camera traps across Serengeti National Park, I modeled how baboon and leopard capture rates at different cameras were affected by tree density, rivers, tourist settlements, and presence of the other species. Baboons preferred areas near tourist settlements while leopard habitat use was unaffected by settlements, suggesting baboons are drawn to humans for food and water resources rather than for a human shield effect. Leopards selected densely treed habitats near rivers with high baboon presence that would allow for ample ambush hunting opportunities. While baboons did not spatially avoid leopard presence, they did avoid intermediate tree density habitats, where leopards are most effective at killing prey. Therefore, when selecting habitats, baboons appear to be considering how environmental features influence their vulnerability to leopard predation. By furthering our understanding of how predator-prey relationships influence habitat selection in heterogeneous landscapes with growing human presence, we can make more informed management decisions to conserve these delicate ecological interactions.