Despite how popular media might portray them, leopards actually don’t spend as much of their lives in trees as one might think. The bulk of their lives is spent terrestrially, where most of their prey is to be found and where they need to demarcate and defend territories.
In fact in areas where few rival predators occur, leopards almost disdain any arboreal activity; they don’t need to hoist kills to keep them out of reach of hyenas or lions, and resting on the ground is just as safe as resting up in the canopy.
Yet in places where they aren’t at the top of the food chain – like Londolozi – tree-climbing is very much a necessity. Many times we have seen leopards scamper for their lives into even the flimsiest of trees to escape a wild dog pack or the crushing jaws of a lion (not always successfully).
Herewith then are what we feel are the best trees in which you can see a leopard when you visit us:
Any Dead One
As macabre as this may sound, the less clutter there is in a leopard-in-tree photo the better, and the tree being dead essentially takes care of this. No leaves blocking your shot, no complicated array of branches that might make finding a good angle tough.
With less growth equating to better viewing, it stands to reason that dead trees make the best leopard viewing aids.
Most of the time leopards won’t hoist kills into dead trees; the exposure makes the kill far more vulnerable as it will be easily spotted by a rival. If under severe pressure from a rival carnivore they may do, as witnessed here before, but they will generally try ad go for an option that offers more concealment. Dead trees will usually only be used as a vantage point, or to take advantage of prevailing conditions, like to warm up in the sun or to get into a cool breeze.
Marula (Sclerocarya birrea)
Fortunately for us, marulas are plentiful at Londolozi. A combination of geology, pedology and topography means they are scattered liberally across most of the Londolozi hill crests and slopes, and – partly coincidentally, partly not – they possess the exact combination of characteristics that makes them most desirable for leopards:
- Broad spreading branches that offer a comfortable rest spot and a convenient place to drape kills.
- No thorns.
- Thick canopy in summer to provide shade and cover.
- Bark that is soft enough to dig into with claws yet strong enough not to peel away to allow for grip when climbing.
With the exceptionally long grass we’ve been seeing this summer, the marula-strewn crests are no longer the open areas they once were, that generally prohibited easy hunting for leopards. The grass length now allows the spotted cats to lie prone and completely invisible even when no bush is nearby. And if a kill is made successfully, there will almost always be a convenient marula handy in which to hoist.
Jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformis)
Much like the marulas currently growing in a sea of long grass that offers excellent cover for hunting, the huge ebony trees found along Londolozi’s riverine areas also grow in places where hunting is easier. The riparian thickets along the Sand River and larger drainage lines on the reserve offer a combination of cover and a higher population of antelope like kudu, nyala and bushbuck; ideal for a leopard on the hunt.
Every couple of hundred metres or less along these same drainage lines one finds towering Jackalberry – or ebony – trees, favoured by leopards for much the same reasons as the marulas above; good cover, relatively easy to climb and wide horizontal branches.
The large lower branches of Jackalberry trees near the main fork usually offer the best photographic opportunities, but so large are a lot of the individual trees that leopards have incredible freedom of movement up in their boughs, and a sighting can be a photographer’s dream.
Natal Mahogany (Trichelia emetica)
If I think back, I don’t believe I have yet seen a leopard in a Mahogany. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been unlucky, but I suspect it’s also partly because there aren’t many mahoganies on the reserve. Like the Jackalberry mentioned above, the Natal Mahogany favours watercourses as its preferred habitat, and its spreading branches and dense canopy offer the perfect hiding place for a leopard escaping the heat of the day.
So dense is the canopy that I imagine I’ve driven past more than my fair share of leopards, so now I religiously drive underneath every one I pass, in the so-far forlorn hope that my day my finally have come.
I think Mahoganies speak to the secretive nature of these cats. A sighting of a leopard in one would almost seem invasive I imagine, so clearly would the cat up in the branches be seeking privacy…
There are a number of fig trees across the reserve; some Sycamore Figs and a large number of Strangler Figs. Some are just starting to grow, but some are truly massive.
As ideal as they would seem as leopard trees, we actually don’t see leopards in them as often as one would imagine. A former Londolozi ranger once put it to me that the bark is so soft that it isn’t particularly conducive to the big cats scaling the trunks, especially not with the added weight of an impala kill clamped between their jaws.
Every so often you get a sighting that goes against the norm, as we did one day in August 2014 when the Little Bush female took her cub up into the boughs of one of Londolozi’s biggest figs, right down in the far south-west of the reserve:
We had been admiring the tree about 30 minutes before, imagining how special it would be to see a leopard up in its boughs, when all of a sudden the female emerged from the bushes about 100 metres away. She started calling for her cub, which came out of hiding another 10 minutes later, and she led it straight to the tree and onto the very branch we’d pointed out as being ideal for a leopard.
Adult Sycamore figs in particular are invariably going to be spectacular, so given that we don’t get Baobabs at Londolozi (which is the real Holy Grail of leopard-in-tree-sightings), Sycamores are high up on the list. It’d be pretty close between dead Leadwood and Sycamore fig for top spot on the podium, at least in my books, but I’d probably have to tip the nod to the Leadwood.
Whichever way you swing it, a leopard in a tree is really the iconic sighting of these big cats. You aren’t as likely to see it as you think, even at Londolozi, and at the end of the day, the species of tree is actually irrelevant.
What will blow you away will be the ease of movement and supple grace with which these amazing predators seem to be so at home up in the branches.