where leopards lurk

We often find leopards in trees here in Thornybush and it is a wonderful thing to see. However, we tend to overlook what has been standing much longer than the leopard – the very tree the leopard is lying in! As rangers we often get the question “What is a leopard’s favourite tree?” and when you take the Anthropomorphism out of it, it is a tough one to answer. Instead I will give you some personal observations on the matter. Animals usually do what comes naturally to them and we are merely observers in their day-to-day routines. Many people believe that leopards often just climb the tree nearest to them that will fulfil their immediate needs. Whilst this may be true, our leopards at Thornybush definitely do, to some extent, favour certain trees.

Saseka, a beautiful leopardess, often favours a particular Weeping Boer bean (Scotia Brachypetala) along the river, where she has been seen many times, either sleeping or with a kill. Saseka also favours Marula trees (Sclerocarya Birrea). Leopards often choose these trees because of their thick, extended branches, which make for a good sleeping spot, while also being covered by a lot of foliage. Malewane, the dominant male leopard, also favours trees remarkably similar to Saseka and we often find him in Marula trees and Weeping Boer beans – for the same reasons as Saseka.

Once leopards have had enough to eat, they love to find a spot to sleep and cool down. The abovementioned trees are great for this because they offer shade and the branches are wonderfully comfortable for them. Other suitable trees are Jackalberry trees (Diospyros mespiliformus), Leadwood (Combretum Imberbe) and even Tamboti trees (Spirostachys Africana). Leopards generally prefer to sleep in the same tree as their kill so they are close to their food and they are safe. Very seldom will you find a leopard with a kill in a tree coming down to the ground to sleep because the smell attracts other predators dangerous to the leopard, so leopards favour certain trees where they can safely sleep near their kill. I have seen a leopard with a kill walk hundreds of metres, missing perfect hoisting opportunities to go to a tree we know it favours – even though this may result in the leopard losing its kill to hyenas or other predators in the area before it even gets to the tree.

A Thornybush leopard called Bizaan (“crazy” in the language of the Shangaan), the newly independent male cub of Saseka and Malewane, throws all of these theories out of the window. Bizaan has been seen lying on top of a bush on a thin branch that could barely hold his own weight yet appearing quite comfortable. He is completely different from other leopards in the way he so often chooses very odd trees such as Bushveld Saffron (Elaeodendron Transvaalense) and Bushveld Gardenia (Gardenia Volkensii). These trees have an incredible amount of foliage but the branches are very thin and all over the place which often makes it uncomfortable when feeding and yet he continues doing this. He is and remains an exception – Bizaan is different and we love him for that plus he also provides entertainment in his uncharacteristic ways – truly “Bizaan”.

Leopards are restricted to finding trees within their own territories and this can also limit their choice of tree for their kill. Simple convenience would also be a critical underlying factor in a leopard’s thought process. Ultimately everything points to the immediate need of the leopard and its location at the point in time as the determining factors in the leopard’s decision as to which tree to choose. So, does a leopard have a favourite tree? There are many examples that seem to prove it but, no, I am not going to go as far as to undermine conventional wisdom. Let’s just say: leopards simply climb the tree nearest to them that will fulfil their immediate needs, and if that happens to be the same tree they have climbed before, then so be it…

Report and images by ranger Matt