Stories from Africa
A lioness lounges in a tree.
Wonders of Nature: Getting Up Close to Tree-Climbing Lions
Nature generally operates in patterns. This consistency allows us to gain some insight into the world of nature and hopefully our appreciation of it. But, every now and then, a variation occurs that sparks our interest and curiosity. And it begs questions about how the natural selection process unfolded over time.
One wonderful example of this is the tree-climbing lions.
It is somewhat uncommon for lions to actually climb trees. There are no more than two populations in the world of such lions that actually climb trees as one of their daily behaviors.
One of these populations is found within the Ishasha sector in the southern part of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) in Uganda. The other population is found in Lake Manyara National Park in southern Tanzania.
At the invitation of Alex Porter, owner of @ the River Lodge and located near the Ishasha sector, I made plans to visit this area of QENP. But the beginning of my adventure would start in the northern part of the park from where I had just finished a safari.
"Look for my manager, Jack Bestbier. He'll take care of you. He's one of the best guides in the area and for sure will help you find the tree-climbing lions," Porter said. "You'll have to figure out on your own how to get to the southern part of the park. It's a couple hours of driving from where you'll be up north."
Traveling independently can sometimes be tricky. Often I take public transportation but, from where I was in QENP, there were no buses heading to the southern Ishasha sector.
A worker at the lodge where I was staying up north took me to an elderly German man. He was heading in the direction I needed to go, but he spoke little English. The German tried to explain that his wife spoke a little English, but this didn't look very promising.
Determined to see the tree-climbing lions, I kept trying.
Fortunately, a kind Spanish couple overheard my strained conversation with the elderly German and offered to give me a ride.
"We leave at 7 tomorrow morning," Josep said, who was traveling with his wife, Rosa. "We will make room for you in our car."
Knowing that somehow it will all work out is something special about traveling independently that I just love.
The driver Josep and Rosa had hired knew exactly where @ the River Lodge was located. They delivered me right to the door the next morning. I couldn't have asked for anything better.
Bestbier, the lodge manager, gave me a warm welcome to where my home would be for the next several days.
"Happy to have you here," Bestbier said. "This afternoon we will head to the park to look for the tree-climbing lions."
A male lion looks intensely.
Bestbier had traveled from South Africa to start a new chapter in his life. And like many South Africans I have met, he seemed to prefer the rural bush to the developed cities.
At 3 p.m., we loaded into Bestbier's game vehicle. It was a converted white Toyota Land Cruiser pickup that had seats added to the rear bed and a tarp overhead to help shield the brutal sunlight.
On our first game drive, we came up empty on lions. According to Bestbier, that was a bit unusual. But it's not a zoo, and the lions don't clock in each day.
During this outing, our truck was having problems. Occasionally, Bestbier had to stop the truck to clean the fuel filter. "I won't be able to stop the engine when we see the lions because the truck might not start again," he said.
It's a good idea to have an operable truck when there's a pride of lions right outside your door.
Our truck approached a large fig tree surrounded by the tall savannah. A male and a female lion were perched on a couple of the branches; they didn't seem to care about our visit.
"As long as we are in the truck, they won't give us much attention," Bestbier explained.
A large handsome young male eyed our truck as we got closer to the fig tree. Bestbier positioned the truck to offer me the best possible view. Reacting like it was camera shy, the male lion plopped its head to the other side of the branch.
We were forced to move again to see its face. Eventually giving in, the lion allowed me to take its photo.
The scientific community theorizes the lions climb the trees to escape biting flies by getting above the high grass to catch a breeze, or the height allows a better view to see food. Whatever the reason, the behavior offers a rare chance to see the lions in their natural habitat.
At one point, I climbed on the roof of the truck and hoped to get a better view. This startled the lion.
The huge male gave me a large snarl, which exposed his mouth full of sharp teeth.
"I think you made him mad," Bestbier said.
I took notice to make sure the truck was still running.
A lioness stairs into the savannah looking for prey in the Queen Elizabeth National Park of Uganda (left).
Dean atop the Land Rover to photograph tree climbing lions (right).