Do lions climb trees?
This is something I am often asked while out on game drive at Londolozi. Let’s have a look at some of the evidence we have gathered over the years to answer this question.
Firstly, in order to climb a tree, cats need to have Retractible claws. This feature is one of the traits that groups together lions, leopards, jaguars and tigers (along with their ability to roar) into the genus Panthera. Retractible claws have several benefits, such as: i) the claws are kept in a sheath when not used and are thereby kept sharp and clean; ii) silent movement when stalking prey; iii) razor-sharp hooks that are used to grip onto prey during a hunt; and iv) the ability to grip onto tree trunks to climb. To be completely correct, the claws are technically not “retractable” as at rest they are within a sheath. Rather one should say that the claws can be pushed out when needed. Read James Tyrrell’s in-depth discussion on lions’ claws here.
Leopards know all too well that hyenas can not climb (as they have claws that are permanently out) and thus often pull their kills into the tops of trees to avoid thievery from scavenging hyenas. From time to time, leopards are unpleasantly surprised when a lion scales the trunk of the tree in which the leopard has stashed its kill, in order to scavenge from the leopard… Yes, lions scavenge too. Here’s some evidence from a sighting of the Tsalala pride stealing a kill from the Ximpalala young female in 2013.
Some of the most famous tree climbing lions in Africa are those from Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, from Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania and more locally, a pride from Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in Kwa-Zulu Natal. However, it is quite clear that Londolozi has its fair share of tree-climbing lions too. A recent sighting of the Ntsevu pride and their 12 cubs rooted this theory for me:
Albeit still young and playful, we were luck enough to have four or five cubs climbing up and down a slanted Knobthorn tree trunk right next to us. One young male managed to reach a fork about 12 feet up and stayed there for an extended period, seemingly trying to work out how to get back down!
But why do lions climb trees? They aren’t trying to get away from other predators like leopards, as nothing is bigger or more powerful than lions out in the African savannah. It could be: i) for play, in the case of cubs; ii) to find a breeze to cool off in areas with little cover; iii) to avoid biting insects at ground level; iv) to scavenge from leopards’ hoisted kills; or v) merely out of curiosity and because they can!
Whatever the reasoning may be, it is pretty impressive to see the agility of these hugely powerful cats that never cease to surprise us out here. Will the Tsalala lionesses new cubs (still yet to be seen clearly – rumours that there are three of them) continue the Tsalala pride legacy of tree-climbing? Or maybe the Ntsevu pride’s current cubs just continue climbing trees into adulthood? Unlikely but it’s great to be hopeful!