Tree climbing is a skill that most boys learn from an early age. The sense of excitement and euphoria of being able to scale the tallest of trees as a small boy is something that I will always remember but for me it was just a way to pass the time. I refuse to believe that my awkward scrambling to these dizzy heights held much in the way of aesthetic beauty; but there is one animal that has made it into an art-form. Leopard cubs learn to climb trees in their first few months and it is this mastery that has propelled them to one of the most successful predators in the world. The ability to seek refuge in the canopy and to cache food out of the reach of stronger competitors is vitally important in terms of survival. Not only that, it also graces us with one of the most beautiful sights in nature.
Yesterday morning’s encounter served merely to reinforce this bold statement. As we pulled into the sighting, the young male leopard was sleeping peacefully on the rocks, enjoying the residual heat trapped within them from the previous day. His stomach was swollen with the spoils of his recent successful hunt as he breathed quickly, forcing oxygen into his body to aid in digestion. The remainder of his meal, a young kudu, swung gently back and forth in the Marula tree above him, draped perfectly across a branch. We marveled at the strength required to hoist such a weight up the side of a tree, and the skill to negotiate such a climb with the limbs of a kudu dangling from his jaws.
Luckily for us, the leopard chose our arrival as a perfect time to awaken from his slumber and feed again. The leopard gazed longingly up at the remainder of his prize and then, with the explosive power of a sprinter erupting from the blocks, propelled himself 6 meters up the vertical trunk to the lower branches. On closer inspection of the trunk, his repeated scaling exploits were revealed as the bark bore multiple scars where his razor sharp claws had given him purchase.
Seemingly discontented with the orientation of his breakfast, the young male skillfully maneuvered the carcass to a more manageable position and settled down to feed. The lack of meat left on the kudu though forced him to continually adjust both its, and his, position and his inexperience began to tell. At approximately 3 years old, he has only been independent for perhaps 18 months and yet to fully master the art of carcass manipulation from above. His repeated movements heralded the sound of a potential meal for others and within minutes, 2 hyenas emerged from the surrounding bush with the hope of profiting from his mistakes.
We watched with bated breath as his constant repositioning inched the remainder of the kudu’s weight further out of equilibrium. We silently pleaded with him to re-centre the load to avoid losing the rest of his meal, whilst the circling hyenas’ salivated at the prospect of his error. Usually a picture of arboreal poise and precision, the leopard suddenly lost his grip and in an uncharacteristic moment of clumsiness, lost his footing too. After face-planting unceremoniously into the lowest branch, both leopard and the kudu plummeted to the ground in a tangle of legs and spots, scattering the baying hyenas! In typical cat fashion however, the leopard was up and ready for action seconds after hitting the floor. As the shocked hyenas gathered their senses and closed in on his prize, the leopard regained his dignity and advantage and shot back up the tree with the kudu tightly clamped within his jaws. The frustrated hyenas were left hopping angrily at the base of the tree, distraught that their patience had gone unrewarded.
Relieved (and no doubt embarrassed by his ungraceful dismount), the young male made sure that he would not make the same mistake twice and took the kudu higher into the tree, ensuring that the gangly limbs were well secured this time. Once satisfied, he flashed a final look of triumph at the disconsolate hyenas and a glance to the skies in case his faux pas had been noticed by any aerial marauders, before settling down to eat in relative peace.
The events of the morning were a wonderful insight into the wealth of emotions that one might encounter on a safari. We were struck with wonder and awe at the grace of the leopard’s original ascent, swiftly followed by the primeval delight in watching a predator devour his victim; the tension of waiting for the inevitable as the kudu slipped from his grasp, and then the comedic aspect of the feline acrobat’s literal fall from grace; finishing up with relief that he was able to redeem himself, although even this was accompanied by a slight pang of disappointment for the loitering hyenas.
During my tree climbing exploits as a child, it pains me to admit that I have chalked up many an ungraceful dismount that ultimately ended up with me on my backside. But as in all walks of life, we learn from our mistakes. We learn which trees have thorns, which branches can hold our weight, and at what age we should perhaps stop our youthful fearlessness! The same is true of the leopard. Although possibly the most beautiful animal to grace the canopy, even the great leopard is not immune to making mistakes. Still young, these misjudgments are essential in honing his skills for the future that will one day see him as a dominant male in charge of his own territory, and a true master of the treetops.