Lions are apex predators renowned for their power and ferocity. Their thunderous roars echo across the African savannas, striking fear into prey animals. But would a lion see a quick and agile monkey as suitable prey? Keep reading to find out.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Yes, lions do eat monkeys when the opportunity presents itself. However, monkeys are not a preferred food source and lions rarely go out of their way to hunt them.

The Lion’s Preferred Prey

Large Ungulates Like Wildebeest and Zebra

Lions primarily prey on large ungulates such as wildebeest, zebras, buffalos, and antelopes. These make up over 70% of the lion’s diet in most areas due to their abundance and susceptibility. Lions are well-adapted to bringing down and killing these larger prey species through cooperative hunting techniques in prides.

Male lions can grow up to 250 kg to help take down a 500 kg wildebeest or zebra.

According to a recent study referenced on National Geographic, in the Serengeti National Park, about 70% of the lions’ prey consists of wildebeest. The migration of over 1.5 million wildebeest provides a consistent prey source for Serengeti lion prides.

In other areas like Ngorongoro Crater, buffalo and zebra make up over 50% of the lions’ kills.

Smaller Animals When Larger Prey is Scarce

When populations of larger ungulates decline or during times of difficulty, lions will prey more often on smaller animals like warthogs, antelope species (oribi, duiker), porcupines, hares, and flamingos.

However, these smaller and quicker animals do not provide enough sustenance compared to large kills.

According to a scientific study, over a 5 year period, smaller prey constituted 9.7% of 1474 lion kills in Liuwa Plains National Park. While uncommon, some lion prides can become specialized hunters of smaller prey in certain ecosystems like the Kalahari Desert, where over 40% of kills were smaller animals.

While lions very rarely eat monkeys due to their small size, agility, and habitat in trees, there are cases of lions preying on vervet monkeys, baboons, and chimpanzees, mainly juveniles and sick individuals. But monkeys make up far less than 1% of prey items across lion populations.

Why Lions Typically Don’t Target Monkeys

Monkeys Live in Trees Where Lions Can’t Reach

Lions are land predators that rely on speed, strength, and stealth to catch prey on the open savanna. However, monkeys spend most of their time high up in trees, using their agility to leap from branch to branch. This arboreal lifestyle keeps monkeys out of reach from the ground-dwelling lions’ grasp. Unless a monkey ventures down or falls from the trees, lions are unable to pursue them as prey.

Monkeys are Fast and Agile

The quick reflexes and nimble movements of monkeys also make them challenging prey. With lightning fast speed and the ability to rapidly change directions while moving through the tree canopy, monkeys can easily evade lions’ pursuit. Their small size combined with athleticism allows monkeys to access parts of the trees with supports too weak or closely spaced for lions.

So even if a lion corners a monkey up a tree, the monkey can often escape along narrow branches.

Lions Conserve Energy and Avoid Risk When Hunting

When scanning for potential prey, lions look for the highest calorie returns for the lowest energy expenditure. Chasing an agile monkey through the treetops takes considerable effort and has a low likelihood of payoff. So rather than waste energy on a challenging hunt with the high risk of failure to secure a small amount of meat, lions focus efforts stalking larger, slower prey like zebra or wildebeest on the ground.

Additionally, pursuing monkeys in trees poses potential dangers for lions. While clambering after monkeys, lions risk falls from heights that could result in serious injury. So for personal safety reasons, lions judge monkeys not worth the risk.

Research on lion predation patterns in Uganda’s Kibale National Park found that primates made up only 6.4% of the lions’ diet. Of primates hunted, lions targeted mainly medium-sized species like olive baboons rather than smaller and more agile monkeys.

Scenarios Where Lions Catch Monkeys

When Monkeys Come Down to the Ground

Lions are opportunistic hunters and will eat whatever prey they can catch. One scenario where lions are able to catch monkeys is when the monkeys come down to the ground. Many monkey species spend most of their time up in the trees, but they do need to come down occasionally to forage, drink water, or cross to another tree.

When monkeys are on the ground, they are quite vulnerable to being ambushed by lions. Lions are able to stalk close to monkeys on the ground by crouching low in the grass and moving slowly. Once within pouncing distance, the lion makes its attack.

Monkeys on the ground lack the speed and agility needed to escape a lion once it charges.

If a Monkey Ventures Too Far From the Trees

Another scenario where lions can catch monkeys is if a monkey ventures too far from the trees and safety of the canopy. Most monkeys know to stay close to the trees to avoid predators like lions. But occasionally, a monkey, often a juvenile, may become separated from its troop and end up an easy target for lions.

Lions may come across a lone monkey that has strayed too far into open grassland. With no trees to escape to, the monkey tries to run away on the ground but is no match for the lion’s speed. Other times, overeager young monkeys may leap between distant trees, misjudge the distance, and end up isolated and vulnerable to any nearby lions.

If a Lion Catches a Monkey By Surprise

Lions are also able to catch monkeys by surprise, even when the monkeys are up in the trees. Lions have been known to climb trees and grab unsuspecting monkeys from branches or vine tangles. However, lions lack the agility of leopards and are not adept tree climbers, so these surprise monkey grabs are rare.

More commonly, lions catch monkeys by surprise with quick ambush tactics. Lions can quietly sneak close to trees and then explode with a burst of speed and power to launch themselves partway up the trunk.

If a monkey ventures close to the edge of a branch, an impala-pouncing lion may be able to swat it from above before the monkey can retreat.

Monkey Behavior to Avoid Lion Attacks

Staying High Up in the Trees

One of the best ways for monkeys to avoid becoming a lion’s next meal is to stay up high in the tree canopy (McGrew, 2004). Lions are unable to climb trees due to their large size and lack of grasping paws, so arboreal monkeys can remain out of reach.

Species like vervet monkeys, patas monkeys, and baboons will often sleep in the trees at night when lions are actively hunting. During the day, they still spend the majority of their time in the upper branches where they can easily escape if a lion approaches.

Monkeys are excellent leapers and can quickly jump from tree to tree to evade pursuit on the ground.

Some monkey species have even developed unique adaptations for arboreal living as a defense against predators. Colobus monkeys have a specialized stomach to efficiently process leaves, allowing them to remain in the treetops where leaves are abundant without descending to the ground often.

Their long legs and arms are perfect for leaping between branches. The proboscis monkey has evolved an extra-large nose and well-developed webbed feet and hands, giving them an enhanced grip and balance in the slippery mangrove forests they inhabit.

So by staying up in the trees, monkeys can significantly reduce their risk of becoming dinner for a hungry lion prowling below.

Moving in Large Groups

There is safety in numbers for monkeys living in areas with lion populations. Species like baboons, vervets, macaques, and guenons will often form large multi-male/multi-female groups ranging from 10 to 100 individuals (Swedell, 2011).

Being part of a bigger troop reduces the risk of any single monkey being attacked. Lions are ambush predators, so they rely on isolating vulnerable individuals away from the group. But in a large troupe, monkeys can more easily maintain vigilance together and detect lurking lions.

Large groups also mean more eyes watching for potential threats. Plus, if a lion does attack, the monkey has a better chance of escaping while other troop members run interference. Male monkeys are also more likely to band together to confront lions and drive them away from the group.

Researchers have observed male baboons and vervets putting themselves at great risk by shouting, throwing objects, and even charging lions to protect their fellow monkeys (Cowlishaw, 1994). So being part of a coordinated, communicative group is a key defense mechanism against lions for many monkey species.

Keeping a Lookout for Lions

Monkeys have evolved excellent visual systems and areas of their brain dedicated to visual processing and object recognition. This allows them to carefully scan their surroundings and detect camouflaged lions waiting to pounce (Zuberbühler, 2009).

Different monkey species have various alarm calls to alert their troop about potential threats. Vervet monkeys have distinct alarm calls that distinguish between threats from leopards, eagles, and snakes.

Baboons bark aggressively when spotting a lurking lion, signalling troop members to be on high alert. Patas monkeys and guenons also have unique warning signals when they notice a predator (Seyfarth et al., 1980).

Being able to quickly identify lions and communicate that information gives monkeys time to flee into the trees for safety. Some monkeys even take lookout duty – a baboon or vervet will station itself in a high tree and keep watch for lions while the rest of the troop feeds.

Then the lookout can sound the appropriate alarm if danger approaches. So the monkey’s intelligence and social nature allow troops to effectively coordinate their vigilance against stealthy lions.

The Exception – Baboons and Lions

Lions and baboons have a complex and fascinating relationship in the African wilderness. Unlike other monkey species, baboons are not a regular part of the lion’s diet. In fact, baboons are one of the few monkey species that lions actively avoid hunting.

There are several reasons for this unique dynamic between the two apex predators:

Baboon Troops are Formidable Adversaries

Baboons live in large troops that can number over 100 individuals. This provides them with strength in numbers against predators. When a baboon troop is threatened by lions, the males will band together, barking loudly and shaking trees or throwing rocks to scare off the big cats.

With their large canine teeth, baboons can also inflict serious injury on a lion if cornered. Even lionesses with cubs will think twice before confronting an entire baboon gang.

Baboons Have Powerful Early Warning Systems

Baboons have an excellent vantage point in the trees to spot approaching predators from afar. At the first sign of danger, baboons will sound loud alarm calls to alert the rest of the troop. This gives them time to gather reinforcements or flee to safety before the lion gets too close.

Baboons also post sentries on hilltops and in trees who keep a constant lookout for lions and other threats.

Baboons are Agile Tree Climbers

If confronted by lions, baboons can quickly escape danger by scrambling up trees. Lions lack the agility to pursue prey into the branches. Even if a lion manages to grab a baboon’s tail on the ground, the primate can easily detach itself and climb out of reach.

A lion trying to scale a tree after nimble baboons often ends up growled at and swarmed for its trouble.

Lions Select the Most Vulnerable Prey

To conserve their energy, lions tend to target weaker or slower moving prey that poses less risk of injury. Compared to a hobbled wildebeest or lone gazelle, going after a huge mob of aggressive, rock-throwing baboons is usually more trouble than it’s worth.

With plenty of easier meal options available, lions decide it’s not worth the risk and bother.

Baboons Offer Little Nutritional Reward

Weighing up to 90 pounds, baboons are relatively small prey compared to buffalo, zebra or other ungulates lions normally feed on. The yield of meat from a single baboon provides far less caloric intake and nutrition for a lion pride than larger game.

Consequently, the reward is not worth the massive effort for lions to overcome an entire baboon troop.


While lions do not typically hunt monkeys, these apex predators will not pass up an easy meal. Monkeys must remain vigilant, stay up in the trees, and never let down their guard – even the king of the jungle can make them prey when the opportunity arises.

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