One of the most incredible things to watch a leopard do is climb a tree and navigate the branches. Many people associate leopards with trees. They ask, “Does one always see a leopard in a tree?”.
The answer is no, one does not always find a leopard in a tree, far less regularly than one would imagine in fact. In the Lowveld region, adult leopards will climb trees to hoist kills (stashing them out of the reach of hyenas and other scavengers), investigate branches that carry the scent of a kill stashed there previously, or to flee from wild dogs, hyenas or lions chasing them. Sometimes they just go up into the canopy to take advantage of a cooling breeze. Over time, as they become experienced adults, leopards learn that climbing trees unnecessarily is a waist of the precious energy that they will need to hunt and mark territory. Younger leopards, however, may climb trees for play or to hone their climbing ability. Sometimes leopards rest in the branches of trees with dense canopies in order to escape the heat of the day and increase their sense of safety.
Most of a leopard’s time is actually spent terrestrially; they live a far less arboreal life than many people think. So yes, look in trees when searching for a leopard, but mainly look on the ground!
What I am getting at is that it is rare to see a leopard climbing. So when you see it, know that you are lucky!
A leopard has the ideal physiology for tree climbing. They are lightweight compared to a lion; they are powerfully built in their shoulders and forelimbs, allowing them to pull themselves up steep tree trunks; they have a low centre of gravity and incredibly high power-to-weight ratio; they have protractile claws allowing them to grip bark (sometimes one can see scratch marks on a tree trunk where a leopard has climbed previously); their front limbs are free from attachment to the collarbone (joined only by ligament and muscle) which allows free movement; their mobile backbone allows them to twist and turn and balance themselves, twisting up to 180 degrees relative to the other half of their body; and their tails are long, slender and sturdy for keeping balance when climbing. These adaptations make the leopard the most successful climber of all the predators in the region.
When you see these cats climb you will be struck by how effortless they make it seem; how strong their necks, shoulders and jaws are when hoisting prey high into the branches of a tree and how they can balance on branches narrower than their paws.
The physiology of a leopard makes this cat the ultimate climbing predator in the bush. They survive well as a solitary animal largely due to the fact that they can stash kills away from predators far larger than themselves and predators that move around in a pack, clan or pride, most of which cannot climb.
As graceful and beautiful as leopards are, it is their almost supernatural ability up in the trees that makes them truly impressive.
Have you seen a leopard up in the trees on your safari?