Why Don't All Lions Climb Trees?

Visit Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda or Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania and you’ll see something unusual: lions that cli...


Visit Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda or Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania and you’ll see something unusual: lions that climb trees and spend much of their lives resting on branches above the ground. Elsewhere, lions rarely climb and look rather silly when trying to do so.

“They can get up there very well,” said Craig Packer, who oversaw the Serengeti Lion Project for some 35 years. But he added that “they go up there and then they’re like, ‘Whoa, how can I get down? “”

Other predatory big cats climb trees all the time. “Anatomically, leopards are simply better built for climbing,” said Luke Hunter, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Big Cat Program At New York. “They are lighter and a leopard’s shoulder blade, their shoulder blades, are proportionately larger, flatter and more concave than a lion’s.

“Lions, on the other hand, are built with extremely strong front limbs and a very, very stiff back,” he continued. “It’s for fighting heavy prey, like a buffalo, on the ground.” Their enormous power, he added, “comes at the expense of the agility and vertical power that a leopard has in being able to whip a tree with an impala.”

Climbing a tree, Dr Packer said, can even be dangerous, especially for heavier male lions. “Downhill, a lion could dislocate a limb with all that weight.”

Most lions also have little need to climb trees. They are social and live in prides and can usually defend their meals against other predators. Solitary leopards need to stow their prey in a safe place and would, according to a studylose more than a third of their victims to hyenas if they are unable to hoist their captured prey up a tree.

So why do lions in some areas climb trees, if they are not made to climb and rarely need to? It has less to do with natural abilities and more to do with learned behaviors and unique local conditions.

In Zimbabwe, there are very few records of lions climbing trees, said Moreangels Mbizah, a conservation biologist working with lions in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. “The only reason they would want to climb is if there’s something on the ground they’re avoiding,” she said.

After a period of particularly heavy rains in 1963, for example, an invasion of Stomoxys biting flies pushed lions into trees and warthog burrows anywhere to escape insects that caused open wounds and infections. deadly. This scholarly habit, George B. Schaller speculated in “The Lion of the Serengetia seminal study of lion behavior may have been the precursor to the tree-climbing culture among Lake Manyara lions.

Lions may also climb trees to escape the heat and roam the landscape in search of prey, says Joshua Mabonga, carnivore research coordinator with the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Society’s program. But in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, there may be another reason: lions live there in smaller groups than many other lion habitats and share the park with large herds of buffalo and elephants. Faced with a rush of buffaloes that may endanger them, the lions escape into the branches. “The safest place for lions is in the trees,” Mabonga said.

Or, as Dr. Packer put it, “Lions climb trees to escape pests, whether they’re as big as an elephant or as small as a stable fly.”

For lions to make such an escape, they need the right kind of tree. Lions often climb African sycamore fig trees or umbrella acacia thorns, which have horizontal branches not too high above the ground.

“It makes it very easy for the lions to climb up and get up,” Dr Hunter said.

Where the lions have taken a liking to the experience and where conditions exist for them to climb, they have taken up tree climbing with the leopard zeal of the converts. In Queen Elizabeth National Park, Dr Hunter said: “You get whole families – adults, youngsters, everyone – up in the trees. Generation after generation, it has really become a habit to climb trees. It takes root as a culture because it’s fun.

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