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Why do leopards climb trees?

In this week’s article, we step away from elephants to explore another fascinating creature that calls the Tsavo Conservation Area home, the leopard. Perhaps the most adaptable and resilient of all large predators, the leopard’s habitat ranges from South Africa, across the African continent, and all the way to the Korean Peninsula. This widespread range is a testament to the leopard’s versatility. This article will explore the habitat of the African leopard, how it exploits its niche, and answer the question of why leopards climb trees?

Niche differentiation

To understand why leopards climb trees, we must first understand the environmental context in which they live, or more specifically, their niche. Leopards share their habitat with several other cat species and large predators. Although they compete with other predators for food resources, there are enough subtle differences in their behaviours for them to coexist. This is known as niche differentiation.

The cheetah, light and slender and designed to reach breathtaking speeds on the open savanna, primarily targets small, fast game such as the Thomson gazelle. Lions, however, are large, immensely strong, and most importantly, social. This means they can group together to take down large game, such as the cape buffalo.

What is a leopards niche?

The leopard’s niche is more complicated and varied. A leopard is designed for stealth. They possess explosive speed over short distances and can kill prey much larger than themselves. This allows leopards to flourish in any environment that provides places to hide and stalk their prey. It is no wonder, then, that leopards are the most adept tree climbers of all the cats, as in many places, their preferred habitat is densely forested areas.

In the Tsavo Conservation Area, leopards are often found within the riparian woodlands along the rivers, where they can stalk and ambush prey from the cover of vegetation and trees. However, their stealth isn’t just effective in a woodland environment. In modern Mumbai, documentarians regularly capture footage of urban leopards entering densely populated human areas to hunt. These leopards are clearly just as capable of stalking in concrete jungles as they are in real ones.

The benefits of being high

Now that we understand a leopard’s niche often includes heavily wooded areas, particularly in the savanna biome, it makes sense for leopards to be accomplished climbers. Leopards climb trees to access good vantage points to scope out potential meals, investigate scents left by previous leopards, and rest away from potential threats that could stumble upon them in the thick brush.

Leopard Climbs Trees (1)
A female leopard abandons her perch in a tree within the Tsavo Conservation Area

Although rare, leopards have been recorded pouncing on prey from trees. For example, this incredible footage of a female leopard leaping from impressive heights to successfully hunt an impala.

However, leopards are not always found in trees; they spend far more time on the ground than in the branches. Climbing trees requires energy, and for predators of the savanna, it is best to save that energy until it is most important.

Keeping away kleptoparasites

Kleptoparasitism is a form of feeding where an animal deliberately steals food from another. On the African savanna, where competition is high, it is common for predators to steal prey from each other.

Although leopards are extremely adept hunters and capable of immense strength, they are solitary. Being solitary is an advantage when stalking prey and relying on stealth, but it comes with some drawbacks.

Firstly, there is strength in numbers. Having others on your side can greatly increase the chances of keeping your meal, which is why clans of hyenas regularly steal food from lions, who are physically much bigger and stronger.

Numbers also allow you to take risks. If a hyena or a lion is injured in a fight over food, they can rely on other group members to catch meals while they heal. In contrast, if a solitary leopard is severely injured, it will most likely die as it cannot hunt for itself.

Leopards Climb Trees Investigating A Buffalo
A leopard investigates a buffalo carcass in the Tsavo Conservation Area, Taken by on Tsavo Trust’s patrol pilots.

As a result, leopards lose around 20% of their kills to kleptoparasites, half of which are taken by hyenas. To avoid this loss, leopards employ their unique skill of hoisting their kills into trees. Their powerful bodies can pull prey into a tree weighing up to 140% of their body weight, leaving the kill tantalizingly out of reach of marauding hyenas.

To hoist or not to hoist

A study conducted by Panthera in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve found that leopards hoisted just over 50% of their kills into trees. This behaviour is more common when hyenas are present, as hoisting helps prevent hyenas from stealing the kill, allowing leopards to consume the entire carcass over a longer period.

However, while hoisting deters hyenas, it also makes the kill more visible, attracting another formidable kleptoparasite: other leopards. Male leopards, which can be 60% larger than females, are particularly prone to stealing hoisted kills from females and younger leopards. This visibility risk explains why not all kills are hoisted, especially by smaller female leopards who are more vulnerable to theft by larger males.

Physiological adaptations for tree climbing

Cheetah are more adapted for speed and lions for strength, something that is very apparent when you see these animals in their natural habitat. Leopards, however, possess several physical adaptations that make them excellent climbers:

Lightweight Build: Compared to lions, leopards are lighter.

Powerful Shoulders and Forelimbs: Strong muscles help them pull themselves up steep tree trunks.

Low Centre of Gravity: Provides stability while climbing.

High Power-to-Weight Ratio: Offers significant strength relative to their body weight.

Protractile Claws: Enable gripping bark, often leaving scratch marks on tree trunks.

Free Front Limbs: Attached to the body by ligaments and muscles, not the collarbone, allowing free movement.

Mobile Backbone: Allows twisting and turning, providing balance and the ability to twist up to 180 degrees.

Long, Slender, Sturdy Tails: Help maintain balance while climbing.

Leopards climbing trees isn’t just a random quirk; it’s a smart strategy tied to their environmental niche. As solitary hunters, they rely on stealth to catch and keep their prey and the dense woodlands are perfect for them to exploit their climbing skills. In order to avoid a wide range of kleptoparasites, leopards have learned to hoist their kills into trees, out of reach of hungry hyenas. These unique behaviours and impressive tree-climbing abilities show just how adaptable and resilient leopards are in various environments around the world.

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