Africa

Close Encounter with Tree Climbing Lions in the Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda

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The Kidepo Valley National Park (KVNP) is a prime African wilderness, extremely remote and difficult to get to. It is a vast, rugged, wild and magnificent expanse of savannah, literally untouched by outside world. In 2013, it was listed in the top ten choices of national parks in Africa by CNN, if that says something.

Located about 700 kilometers from the capital Kampala, the easiest way to reach the park is by an expensive chartered flight by Eagle Air. Since I was visiting the nearby region around Kitgum on work, I reached the National Park by a 4-wheel drive, via Karuma, Gulu and Kitgum, after spending a couple of days I Gulu. There are various routes to between Kampala and Kidepo and it takes between 7 to 12 hours, depending on the route.

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KVNP stretches over 1,440 square kilometers in the north-east extreme of Uganda, bordering South Sudan and Kenya and is characterized by seemingly endless arid and semi-arid rolling plains, intersected by hills, rocky outcrops, ridges and mountain ranges. It is located beyond the wild frontier region of Karamoja, the land of the legendary and fearsome Karamajong tribes, a close cousin of the Masai tribe in neighboring Kenya.

Unlike many busy and touristy national parks of East and Southern Africa, the Kidepo Valley National Park, by the virtue of its remoteness and difficult access, receives very few visitors

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I stayed in a lodge (a cluster of cottage) in Apoka, deep inside the National Park. Located on the headland above the valley, the lodge overlooks the game-rich Narus valley. Occupying a commanding height over an expansive savannah landscape, it affords views that extend to the distant horizons, fringed by a range of faraway mountains. The place is so immensely vast that you lose your normal sense of space and distance.

I spent three nights here and went out with my ranger guide for morning and evening game drives and wilderness walks. And one of the highlights of my visit was a close encounter with a pair of tree climbing lions.

Now, lions are generally not known for their ability to climb trees. After all, unlike Leopards, lions are not biologically built to climb trees easily; it does not come to them naturally and spontaneously. One therefore wonders why a few prides across game reserves in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa regularly climb trees and seem to love a semi-arboreal life, compared to the majority of lions who don’t climb trees at all and are exclusively terrestrial.

It is believed that while all lions have the intrinsic ability to climb trees, only some prides actually choose to do so and have mastered the skill of tree climbing trees and lazing on branches. Some say that the lions do this in order to rest and digest their food, following a successful morning hunt. Savanah grasslands can get very hot during the day and after a hunt, staying up on a tree is always a cooler option for rest. Some say, the lions climb trees to escape from the vicious bite of the tsetse flies and other insects, common on the Savanah floor. Hence for some reason or other, some lion prides have have taught themselves to climb trees.

The repeated tree climbing behavior among specific lion prides is attributed to some kind of social and behavioral learning occurring among these prides. Young lions see older ones climb and copy the behavior. The behavior is hence transmitted and repeated through generations. As in any other skill, the more these lions use their tree climbing skill, the sharper the skill becomes, making the lions more and more adept and confident. This predilection for a partially arboreal life seems to be an inter-generational behavioral adaptation, specific to certain prides.

Whatever be their motivation, it is delightful watching lions lazing on treetops.

I was with an expert and enthusiastic ranger from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) and he helped me spot a tree that had lions. It was a fairly big ‘Sausage’ tree (Kigelia Africana).

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We were in an open safari jeep operated by the UWA, and prodded by the sense of adventure and bravado, I urged our driver to get our jeep as close as possible to the lions. This tree, barely 20-30 feet away and above us, had a lion and a lioness lazing on its branches. By the shape of their bellies it was clear that they were gorged.

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We slowly and haltingly circled the tree from close, to observe the lions from different angles. It was late afternoon and slanting sunrays created the perfect light conditions for a great photo shoot. While the lioness was largely aloof and gave us bored looks, the lion seemed to enjoy the attention he was getting from us. In fact he made quite a show of his tree climbing skills (as the photos will show), moving from one side of the tree to the other.

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He was actually quite a sport and at one point in time, scrambled over to a broad fork on the tree and posed for me, with the golden yellow sunlight bouncing off his gorgeous face and mane.

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The experience of true wilderness and wildlife couldn’t have got more intimate, thrilling and spine chilling.

The shadows of the late afternoon were getting longer, with the sun turning from golden yellow to golden orange. My ranger gently reminded me that it was time for us to leave because soon the lions would be getting down from the tree.

I didn’t want to end up as dinner for the lions. So we made our retreat, difficult as it was tearing myself away from such a spectacle.

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