It’s a question we often get asked as guides: “Do leopards have favourite trees?”
Well, there’s more to the answer than a simple yes or no. I have on a few occasions seen the same leopard in the same tree, either to stash a kill in or just to climb in order to wile away the drowsy afternoon hours, so I suppose I could swing towards ‘yes’ when answering. The again, if thinking rationally, and deliberately trying to steer away from anthropomorphising, I’d say no. A ‘favourite’ is not something I imagine a wild animal like a leopard has.
But let’s look a bit deeper into it.
Individual leopards occupy different areas (they are territorial animals), and the habitat within those areas is going to vary. Terrain, vegetation, and as a result the herbivore population are all going to be different in different sectors of the reserve. The Mashaba female for instance has prime river frontage in the territory she occupies; jackalberries and mahogany trees line the Sand River, and moving further back up the slope to the south, she has countless marulas in which to hoist carcasses. Her options are seemingly limitless.
The Makhotini male, by contrast, has a territory filled with knobthorn acacias, and his choice of larger evergreens is slightly more limited. He also has a much larger territory to patrol. I guess that a combination of species of tree, number of trees, territory size, prey availability, and most probably the leopard itself would all play a part in determining whether or not a leopard does have a favourite tree.
Convenience would also be a critical underlying factor as far as I can tell. What the immediate need of the leopard is and where it is at that point in time would be the decider.
Need to scan for prey? Climb the nearest marula. Need to hoist an nyala kill near the Maxabene Riverbed? A shady jackalberry is going to be your best bet. Having said that, if a leopard has a kill or lions are chasing it, it doesn’t have time to be fussy. If the only tree around is a buffalo thorn, get up it without delay! Worry about the cuts and scrapes later…!
Seeing a leopard in the same tree on more than one occasion is more likely a coincidence than anything else.
I have seen the Makhotini male with a hoisted kill in the same tree on three occasions, and the Piva female with a duiker kill in the exact same one on a fourth, but the tree in question is by far the easiest and best option to hoist for a good half-a-kilometre in any direction. A weeping boer-bean with a sloping trunk, it offers an easy climb, nice forks in which to hang prey, a leafy canopy to provide shade and cover, and it grows out of a prominent termite mound, so even if the leopard is lying on the ground, it will still have a nice vantage point from which to scan for danger. I have watched the Makhotini male kill a young buffalo and drag it for about 300m, bypassing at least six perfectly climbable marula trees to instead make for the same weeping boer-bean.
The most ridiculous case (and only one in which you could truly use the term) of tree ‘favouritism’ was when one of the Ximpalapala cubs from 2012 was in the same Jackalberry tree on the banks of the Manyelethi riverbed no less than three times a week, for about a two month period! That is not an exaggeration! It got to be so predictable that we almost began calling her the Jackalberry female, despite her still being partially dependant on her mother.
Have a look at the two photos below:
Although they were taken at slightly different times of day, hence the different lighting conditions, they are of exactly the same leopard in exactly the same tree, on exactly the same branch, in pretty much exactly the same position. The then-Mashaba young female was spotted by Lucien Beaumont in the branches of a Jackalberry tree when the first photo was taken, and in the second photo we were actually lucky enough to watch her climbing the tree in the failing light, about 29 months later.
I’m not going to go as far as to say that this must be one of her favourite trees, as she’s probably climbed hundreds of others in the two years between the photos, but given that the tree always has a dense canopy and is situated slightly back from the road, making a leopard in its branches hard to spot, I’m confident that she’s in it far more often than we know.
So back to the original question; do leopards have favourite trees?
I can umm and aah about this for a long time, and wax lyrical about great sightings in the same trees, but ultimately, I am going to remain as non-committal as possible.
Leopards climb the nearest tree to them that will fulfil their immediate needs, and if that happens to be the same tree they’ve climbed before, so be it.
What do you think?…
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell