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I could hear the long thorns of the acacia trees scratch the side of the vehicle as we followed the narrow, overgrown dirt road through the thick bush. It was barely wide enough to fit through, but we managed, forging on toward a patch of fig trees that rose dramatically from the tall grass. Anyone or anything that climbs these trees is rewarded with an expansive overlook of the Ugandan savannah. We saw monkeys darting up a few of the trunks, eyeing us as we approached. But we didn’t come to see baboons; we were there for something much bigger.
When travelers think of Uganda, the first animal that comes to mind is the gorilla. And that’s not by accident: The country has nearly half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas, and it leads the way — alongside Rwanda — in not only marketing them to tourists, but also in protecting their population. In the past, visitors to Uganda have employed an in-and-out method. That is, show up for two to three days to see the gorillas, then leave and take a classic safari elsewhere.
But that’s changing. With Uganda’s introduction of a new e-visa system this past summer, and the emergence of tour operators willing (and able) to show off the rest of the country, the world is beginning to get a look at some of the country’s best-kept secrets.
One of them is the tree-climbing lions in the Ishasha region of Queen Elizabeth National Park. It sounds like a viral video in the making: a lion in a tree — something even the most experienced safari lovers have not seen. But in Queen Elizabeth, it was just another day. Our guide told us that, because of the terrain, the lions have learned to climb the trees to gain a better vantage point, which helps them spot game — such as the Ugandan kob — in the thick, bushy landscape that dominates much of this area. He said that they can stay in the trees for up to 20 hours, digesting, scouting and lounging before coming down at night for another hunt. Further inquiry revealed that the lions probably climb the trees for a combination of reasons. One ranger told me they climb simply to avoid the heat; another said that it’s to get away from the nagging, biting, ground-dwelling tsetse flies.
As we pulled up to the fig trees, I noticed their branches sloped gently. They looked particularly good for lounging; some even swooped out like the bottom half of the letter “U.” The leaves of these trees provide lots of shade, offering protection from the hot sun. We checked a few of them for the lions, but had no luck.
Then, in the distance, our guide spotted something. It was a scene straight out of “Tarzan” or “The Jungle Book”: A lion was walking along a branch, placing each paw deliberately in front of the next, like a gymnast on a wire. I could see other lions lying relaxed, their legs draped down off either side of a branch, and their chins turned sideways and resting on the bough’s rounded curve.
“There are lions in the tree!” someone shouted.
Suddenly, we were all children again, watching these magical beasts dance gracefully on the branches.
Despite the repeat business they bring to Queen Elizabeth, prides of tree-climbing lions are, on the whole, rare. They aren’t limited to Uganda, though. Lake Manyara National Park and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Kruger National Park in South Africa all have reported sightings of lions in the trees. Some of these observations have been isolated, and it seems to be on a pride-by-pride basis — that is, most lions stay put on the ground.
So, if and when you spot them, you’ve joined a special club of safari-goers. I have now begun to separate my lion memories into two groups: those that involve trees, and those that don’t.