Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda is often said to have the world's only tree climbing lions. The same is said about Manyara National Park in Tanzania. But the truth is, the tree climbing lions aren't a special type or breed of lions, basically any lion can climb a tree, it more depends on the presence of suitable trees to climb. I fact, I would like to claim that you are much more likely to see a lion in a tree in the Serengeti than in any other place, especially during and just after the rainy seasons. This is of course partly because of the sheer number of lions in the Serengeti, making it easier to find lions at all. The only lions that really almost never climb trees, are large, adult males, they are just too big and heavy.
There are many theories put forward to explain why lions climb trees
Why do lions climb in trees? There are many theories put forward to explain why lions climb trees. These include avoiding wet grass, getting a cooling breeze, getting a better view of the surroundings, escaping charging buffaloes or getting away from annoying flies. Having lived permanently in the Serengeti and observed lions on a daily basis for five years, I'd say that they probably all are true. I would also say that sometimes they climb just for the sheer fun of it, especially cubs and sub-adults.
One day as I was doing my regular search for lions in the Serengeti, the wildebeest migration had passed by a few days ago. I guess all conditions had added up perfectly for the flies, the droppings from the wildebeest, the rains and the temperature, because it was one of these rare days when the flies are present in extreme numbers. Everything seemed too busy shaking off the flies to be able to do anything else. As soon as I stopped my car, my face and arms got covered in flies. When I drove, the wind kept most of them away. This meant that whenever I found a pride of lions, I never stayed longer than absolutely necessary, the flies were just too unbearable.
Since I moved on so quickly, not wanting to stay still, I actually managed to find ten different lion prides this day. What was really significant this day though, was that in eight out of the ten sightings I had, the lions were either in a tree or on top of a rock. The remaining two prides were out on the open plains, not having the option to retreat into a tree or up on a rock. To me, this was a very strong indication that the lions do indeed climb trees to avoid flies. In the trees (or on rocks), they get an extra bit of breeze that keep more flies off, just like I got it while driving.
But let's be honest. Lions are not fantastic tree climbers. When it is time to climb down, they often look like they regret ever coming up the tree, they are clumsy and slow. Sometimes they try to go head first, other times butt first. Not unusually, they seem half panicked not knowing how to proceed down, trying different options before they find a way down. One time I saw a female that slipped from the branch she was resting on. She managed to catch herself with the front paws, leaving her dangling under a big branch of the tree. With a lot of willpower (or fear) and extraordinary raw power, she managed to heave herself up on the branch again. But there was nothing graceful about the move. The lions' tree climbing skills contrast a lot to the skills of a leopard. Leopards move around, even run and jump in the trees like it was plain ground.
See more photos in the Serengeti gallery