Ishasha lies in the Southern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park. It is a fabled place in Uganda where prides of tree climbing lions live in the canopies like troops of monkeys. This behavior is rare enough that there is still debate over what drives a 180 kilo (400 pound) cat to clumsily scratch its way up a tree, but sightings seem to be becoming more common.
A while ago, it was thought that the only other place to see tree climbing lions was Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania, but sightings have since happened in Serengeti National Park, South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Uganda’s Kidepo Valley National Park, and the Londolozi Game Park (check out the great video here). Further, I have previously seen a lion climb a tree in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Popular theories to explain this rare behavior is that it is a bit cooler up in the branches and that there are less biting insects up there, so it is the optimal place to pass the day napping away. This certainly seemed like the case in Ishasha, where people also build their houses on stilts to live in the elevated breezes that flow through the tree tops. Further, our guide noted the lions of Ishasha usually climb the trees in the morning as the heat is setting in, and sometimes will stay on the ground on cooler days.
Nonetheless, the link to the video above showing a male lion trying to steal a leopard’s kill, also shows that beyond the lazy lounging the lions do in the trees, it can simply be opportunistic. The tree lions in Ishasha wake every so often and scan the horizon from their elevated vantage point in search of opportunities for a meal. Also, my last sighting of a lion in a tree in the Maasai Mara (see link above) was during the Great Migration, and the lioness was alert the whole time, seemingly scanning the savannahs for the herds. It looked like a hunting technique.
However, spending a day driving around the Ishasha sector another theory emerged. To the west, beyond the sparring hippos in the Ishasha River, the Virunga mountain range rises out of the Congo like a crocodile spine. To the south lies a gauntlet of conical volcanic peaks on the Rwanda border, and flocks of exotic birds fly in from the shores of Lake Edward in the north. In such a scenic park, it seems obvious that the lions lug themselves up the trees for these epic views.
However, whatever theory of combination of them that you choose to believe, Ishasha definitely deserves to be explored. It is varied savannah with short sprouts of grass, which are kept as neatly pruned as a golf course by large herds of thousands of resident Topi, and Ugandan Kob. However, as the rains inundate the plains, the grass sprouts high enough to hide herds of big buffalo, and meandering elephants and the game hides deep in the bush.
Acacia trees speckle the savannah, but what makes Ishasha exceptional is that it is also dotted with a great wild fig trees. These figs have great thick branches that extend perpendicular to their trunks, creating the elevated lion lounges for which the park is famous.
Watching a pride of lions climb up into a fig tree makes it instantly obvious that they were not designed to do so. They are awkward and ungainly like a rugby player on the dance floor. Their claws help them up, but sliding back down is much more daunting, and balancing along a branch to find a solid apex to take nap shows a timid nature, seldom seen in lions.
A rock climber would chastise them for using their brute strength instead of their agility, and they seem so exhausted by the time they find a resting place that they flop down immediately and take a nap.
As the sun descends, so does the temperature on the savannah, and the tree climbing lions of Ishasha descend back onto the ground and become normal lions just like everywhere else — on the hunt, in the soft dusk light. While it still remains a mystery why Ishasha is such a special place for lions, the views over the park at sunset after having spent a day with tree lions make it clear why it is such an exceptional place to visit. So travel to Ishasha to see the landscape that is so beautiful, even the lions climb trees to get a better view.
Author’s Note: I stayed at @The River Ishasha and if you travel to Ishasha, I recommend you do the same. It is a great place to find a guide to locate Ishasha’s tree climbing lions (I recommend Jack Bestbier), relax by the river, and eat delicious fish luwambo or goat stew.