Tanzania is home to some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders in the world. A typical safari in Tanzania would revolve around the spectacular offerings of the Serengeti National Park as well as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area; and with the vast expanses of the plains being the playground for thousands of different animals, it is the perfect mix of thrill and serenity that defines Africa for a traveller. The natural phenomena that occur in these promised lands are unmatched and at times inexplicable. The great migrations, for example, need no introduction as the sheer number of Wildebeest and Zebra tell a majority of the tale that makes it such a majestic and humbling experience to witness. Considering the excessive obsession that us humans have to witness these thrilling natural phenomena, one would expect the scrutiny of our documentation to have covered most of what these creatures are up to. However, tales of mysterious animal behaviour and peculiar behavioural patterns in animals never cease. One such peculiar act is that of tree-climbing lions, usually known to be quite elusive during Tanzanian safaris. Lions are not known to be the best tree climbers, nor do they exhibit such behaviour regularly. However, there are patches within the vast plains in Tanzania where lions are known to laze and relax on trees, even using them as a vantage point.
Nestled between the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Tarangire National Park lies the Manyara National Park, named after the vast alkaline Lake Manyara that forms one of its borders. It is held that some of the first tree-climbing lions were photographed in this national park along the trees that line the plains adjacent to Lake Manyara. Naturally, the first few sightings of the wrong cat atop trees might have taken people by surprise, leading them to wonder if this was something specific to Lake Manyara’s Lions. Soon, it became a marketable trait and expectant visitors flocked the national park hoping to spot these peculiar Lions. However, as the value of marketing such a peculiar act from one of the most majestic big cats in the world kept increasing, spotting these lions on trees at Lake Manyara became harder. But that does not mean they do not exist. Adjacent to the Manyara National Park is the Tarangire National Park – another ecologically diverse zone that exhibits habitat very similar to the Lake Manyara National Park, so much so that it combines to create the Manyara-Tarangire ecosystem. Some guides claim to have spotted prides of these tree-climbing lion in Tarangire while exploring potential routes for new Tanzanian safaris. There have been other records of some lions doing the same in other national parks too – the Serengeti’s vast expanse consists of certain areas where prides exhibit such behaviour, as do certain prides in the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. This brings us to examine the reason behind such behaviour, even addressing why such behaviour is unusual.
We all know the Leopard as the flagship tree-climbing cats. Spending time on safaris in Tanzania as well as other savannahs would yield quite a few sightings of these cats on trees. Generally, most cats tend to have a precocious knowledge in climbing, backed by physiological traits that allow them to climb with ease. Leopards are relatively lightweight cats with physiological characteristics (common to most cats) that aid them in climbing trees: strong hind legs and back muscles coupled with a low relative mass and centre of gravity allow them to manoeuvre branches and maintain their balance. Lions are much heavier cats that are not built to exhibit such agility. Expectedly, they look ungainly and quite uncomfortable in their attempts to scale trees but eventually appear to be enjoying the most relaxed of siestas atop these trees with their limbs suspended in thin air. Maybe the novelty of the reward might be exciting enough to take on this ordeal. Nonetheless, the physical constraint is why tree-climbing is a challenge that lions tend to avoid, save for a few prides that exhibit such behaviour.
As for the reason behind this behaviour, people have come up with several explanations. One can expect such behaviour to be pride-specific rather than species-specific. Pride-specific behaviour is characteristic of big cats largely due to their tendency to imitate parents and perform learned behaviour over time. Hunting is a natural and instinctual process that is inculcated in cubs, but techniques of stalking prey are picked up from their parents. What would have begun as a behavioural oddity in a few rare prides would have been passed on to cubs, thus yielding pride-specific tree-climbing behaviour. Many suggest that lions around the Manyara-Tarangire national park as well as certain other areas climb trees to escape swarms of flies. As the rainy season leads to an outburst of savannah grasses and flies, the Tsetse flies begin to swarm lions incessantly. Lions find higher ground in order to escape these bloodsucking flies, and trees offer the only high ground in the vast savannahs.
Others contend that the warm draft of air that runs through the savannahs gets too hot for the lions and the cool air and shade of the branches offers some welcome respite for these cats. Trees also serve as great vantage points due to their scanty presence amidst the vast and endless plains. A typical safari in Tanzania will reveal how easy it is to gaze into the distance just by standing on top of a jeep. With trees being few and far between for large parts of the plains, Lions often use them to observe and find prey that wanders far away, determining the best move to fill their stomachs. Certain studies have also suggested that Wild Buffalo herds can be dangerous for lion cubs, and prey preference studies within Lake Manyara national park have revealed that Lions might even be climbing this high ground to escape the potential damage that buffalos might cause to the pride. Take some time during your Tanzanian safari to observe how Lions only stalk buffalo if they are young or separated from the herd.
Thus, this mix of safety and comfort might explain the spread of this behaviour within specific prides of Lion. Scientists have also conducted studies to understand this behaviour, even scrutinising the trees that Lions pick to climb. Trees that have low lying branches, ideally slanting and almost horizontal are the ones that are used for climbing. Umbrella Acacia, Sausage trees and Wild Dates are the trees that are used typically. Most of these are very common on any Tanzanian safari, but are most common in areas around the Manyara-Tarangire ecosystem, thus leading to a higher number of these spotting in that area.
What all of this means is that it might not be common to spot tree-climbing lions, but it is not the most unusual of animal behaviours. Certain prides of Lion exhibit this behaviour and may do so for several reasons, mostly pertaining to comfort, safety and even visibility. They pick those trees that require less physical effort like the famous Acacia tree. These trees are found all around Tanzania, but are denser around the Manyara-Tarangire ecosystem, as well as parts of the Serengeti. So, the next time you find yourself on a safari in Tanzania, look out for these trees and you might just be surprised with what you find looming up there. A leopard might make for a great sight, but a Lioness lazing on a thick branch with its limbs hanging in thin air might make for one of the most carefree and relaxed sightings in nature!