What goes up must come down…
The one thing I love about Leopards is that they can climb trees: and they make it look so easy. I have always loved to climb but I have certainly never managed the grace and agility of these spotted cats. When I’m up in a tree I feel free and alive but there is always the fear of a bone-crushing fall; always the thought in the back of my mind that I am out of my comfort zone and that I still have a difficult descent!
Our human bodies are just not built to climb and be comfortable in the branches; evolution has acted against us on this front as we have moved further and further away from an arboreal lifestyle. Terra firma is where we are most at home. The body structure of a leopard however is built for tree climbing… The back legs of the cat are very powerful and muscular and can propel them into very high places. Muscular backs also assist in climbing, allowing them to almost spring into the canopy. The claws are easily unsheathed and dig into the bark, a bit like an athlete uses spikes when running track. A lower centre of gravity also helps with stability and their relatively small body size and weight enables them to defy gravity, even if only for a couple of split seconds.
The much larger cat, the Lion, is able to climb trees but it is limited to the lower branches. A Lion is large and bulky; gravity gives these cats a much harder time. By in large lions prefer to sleep on the ground although a couple of prides throughout Africa have proved that they are fully capable of climbing up.
This same body structure however works against the leopard when they have to climb back down the tree. Suddenly the powerful back legs are not ideal. The claws also curve inward…climbing down a tree head first doesn’t allow them the necessary grip. Some leopards are clever enough to realise that in descending a tree they need to begin by going tail first, or at least side-on, which allows them a proper grip. They don’t look nearly as agile descending down, rather ungainly. If all else fails they just jump…
The one animal which has not mastered the tree climb is the hyena. Their body design is built for immense bone crushing power, endurance running and power… its legs are completely inadequate for the branches. Watch the comical video below and you can just imagine the hyena cursing evolution as he watches on as the Camp Pan Male enjoys his two impala kills in the safety of a Jackal berry tree. But even though the hyena can’t climb trees…he does have a trick up his sleeve, a trick which makes for entertaining viewing…enjoy and let me know if you have seen some creative Hyena behaviour!
Written, filmed and photographed by Adam Bannister