Tree Climbing Lions in Ishsaha
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Tree Climbing lions in Uganda, Ishasha, Queen Elizabeth National Park tree lions.

Tree Climbing Lions are simply the lions that climb trees. ‘’Lions do climb trees’’ is not a myth but a reality exclusive to those (lions) in Ishasha; Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park’s southern sector. Viewing big cats like the lions resting up in the trees leaves one wondering how they manage to climb to such great heights. Well, this is such a rare wildlife scenario which can only be experienced on a Uganda Safari. In their natural history, there is no physical adaptation for their tree climbing habit apart from having claws like other cats such as the leopards that can’t take any one by surprise when viewed climbing a tree with much ease. Queen Elizabeth National Park is a melody of wonders but the sights of lions climbing up the trees, lazily hanging and sleeping on the tree branches or even pouncing down are such rare scenarios which stand above the rest. Tree climbing lions are an important element of Uganda’s wildlife and have immensely contributed to the popularity of this park which came to be referred to as the ‘Home of the and Tree Climbing Lions.’

Why do lions in Ishasha (Queen Elizabeth National Park) climb trees.

The reasons for climbing trees by the lions in Ishasha can or should be taken in the behavioral adaptation but not in the natural/physical adaptation context because there seems no scientific research evidence to support such. It is speculated that lions climb trees:

  • To escape the irritating insect bites on the ground. The mere fact that lions feed on meat, they can’t escape flies swarming around them let alone biting them. These force them to seek for greater heights by climbing trees where there are no such flies and insects/ants to irritate them with their stinging bites.
  • To sight grazers that can be their next prey. Greater heights are a platform for outstretched views of any available prey for them and if this is the reason for their climbing, you will see them pouncing down after sighting one and the hunt will follow suit.
  • To enjoy a cooler breeze in greater heights away from the very hot grounds. The fact that Ishasha generally lies at very low altitudes, it experiences very high temperatures during the day. This explains why they are mostly sighted in trees in the early afternoon but not morning hours. Actually escaping ground heat is pointed at as the main reason for their climbing habit and is supported by the fact that they mostly climb during the hot months than the wet ones.
  • Socially, lions mark territories. It could be that finding a full pride up in the trees is another easy way for them to mark the tree as their territory which sends a signal to other non-pride members to keep away.

For whatever reasons that these lions adopt tree climbing, we are good to assert that this is a generational habit until a thorough research to establish their climbing trends is done. In this case the above reasons can be weighed down on grounds that there are lions in much hotter areas than Ishasha but they do not climb trees to escape the heat. And ofcourse irritating insects are everywhere in their jungle habitats but still lions in other areas do not climb trees.

On an individual/personal thought; it could be that those lions in Ishasha are naturally climbers a trait they may have adapted to by virtue of their strolls through the Virunga forests. They reach Ishasha through a wildlife corridor stretching from the Virunga forests in Congo to Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kibale Forest National Park upto Semliki national Park. Please note however that there are no lions in Kibale Forest and Semliki National Parks.

Where else in Africa can Tree Climbing Lions be sighted.

Well, it is alleged that there are other places like Kruger National Park in South Africa and Tarangire National Park in Tanzania where lions can be sighted climbing or up in trees but viewing a pride of them completely and utterly relaxed in trees is reserved for Ishasha – Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda and Lake Manyara National Park in Southern Tanzania. Sightings in Kruger and Tarangire are rare and more so for a few individuals on small or short trees that can be climbed by even the oldest lion. Uganda remains as the country in the World with the highest population of tree climbing lions and their excellent sightings can only be guaranteed in Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth Park.

Elsewhere in Uganda, particularly in Murchison falls and Kidepo Valley National Parks, lions have occasionally been spotted in trees. However, it is mainly the cubs and the lionesses but not the males. Also in Queen Elizabeth National Park in the north at Kasenyi, lionesses and cubs have been spotted in trees but still not a full pride like in Ishasha. Of recent, some male lions that are believed to have moved from Ishasha, were spotted up in the acacia trees in the northern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park. This takes us back that tree climbing is a generational habit which is to be carried on for other generations of lions to come regardless of where they are but at the moment, Ishasha remains as the best place in the world to see tree climbing lions.

Best time to see tree climbing lions in Uganda.

The best time to find them is during the dry months of June to mid-September and December to February. Although chances on them are very high at almost 90% in the dry months, these lions can be viewed any time of the year. Other natural factors constant, tree climbing lions can be viewed regardless of the season; wet or dry. In both seasons, there are some factors as discussed above that propel them to climb. In the dry season, the heat on the ground forces them to chase for cool breezes in the raised heights. In the wet season, the many flies and insects/ants with their irritating bites plus the wet grounds, they will have to climb up in the trees as a way of escaping from such. One can therefore visit any time of the year.

The best time of the day to see lions in the trees should be from mid-morning until late evening. They do not climb so early before the irritating dew on the trees dries up. Also it’s obvious that the dew makes trees slippery hence not easy to climb.  These lions do not sleep in trees, so rule out the night visits and neither do they stay up when it’s raining.

More questions about tree climbing lions:

Are there any distinctive features possessed by ishasha lions that others do not have?

There are no such distinctive visible features possessed by those in Ishasha that other lions do not have. They are neither distinctive in size.

Are there specific trees that these lions climb? Which trees do lions climb?

They climb fig trees and acacias which dominate Ishasha plains. Acacia and fig trees have flat shady canopies and atop them, you can find lions comfortably seated or resting, if not enjoying the shade in the branches slightly below. Also common to these trees is that they spread their branches at lower heights which perhaps reduces the level of difficulty with which they may climb if it wasn’t the case. Those spotted in the north of the park are usually on Cactus and acacia trees, as well. The few in other parks like Murchison falls tend to be on Sasuge trees, baboon apples and acacias.

Note: 

  • Ishasha and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are 2 hours drive away from each other which makes it easy to combine tree climbing lions tour and Gorilla trekking in Bwindi . If it is not part of a longer Uganda Safari, a trip involving tree lions and Gorillas can be as short as 3, 4, 5 days departing from either Kampala/Entebbe in Uganda or Kigali city of Rwanda.
  • Another good opportunity for a closer encounter with the lions can be through lion tracking at the northern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park. All our tours to Queen Elizabeth Park can be adjusted to include the tree climbing lions in Ishasha or Lion tracking at the Kasenyi sector, still with in Queen Elizabeth Park.
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