In Search of the Elusive Tree Climbing Lion – Ishasha Uganda 

Posted by Pat on January 28, 2017 in Travel |

 22-23 January 2017

What I will always remember about Ishasha will be: the Park Rangers’ scorched earth policy; our arduous hunt for a tree climbing lion; the thunderstorm and happy hour on the savannah; almost touching the Congo; and braking for birds. My days are filled with exciting wildlife sightings; evenings I relax in my luxury tent at Ishasha Wilderness Camp.

It is another long, hot, dusty 3 hour ride from our stay above the Kazinga Channel to Ishasha at the very southern tip of the gigantic Queen Elizabeth National Park. I believe we had some 15 feet of tar road during our 75 mile bouncy trip. Through light haze, the surrounding Rwenzori Mountains, called the ‘Mountains of the Moon,’ tower in the distance. Directly east is the birthplace of mankind and my ancestors in the hills of the Great Rift Valley. And just over the peaks is the Congo. Once again, we cross the Equator to enter the Southern Hemisphere. 

I arrive at Ishasha Wilderness Lodge, a luxury tent experience on the wooded banks of the Ntungwe River. A huge bull elephant is just a few meters downstream. The sherry is waiting for our evening nightcap. Once again we must have a security escort to our tents after dark. This promises to be an interesting and sound-filled night with nothing between us and the lions, elephants, baboons, hyenas and pythons but heavy mosquito netting. And again, we are reminded of the fact that we have yet to meet a mosquito. 

Grey Crowned Crane scratching for fried insects in burned savannah.

The Park Rangers’ scorched earth policy was shocking to behold. I have seen results of controlled burning throughout the parks and chocked on its ever-present smoke. However, today we returned to our Lodge for lunch at 1 pm through sweeping vistas of the savannah’s golden grasses but departed for a game drive at 5pm through a landscape of charred and blackened ground for as far as my eye can see. Piles of elephant dung smolder like mini volcanos. Flames can be seen miles away along the rim of the rift. 

What was grazing land for the wildlife just four hours ago is now burnt earth. Sporadic bushes and trees remain, some scorched but others unaffected. The light tan coloring of the many varieties of antelope contrasts sharply with the blacken grasses. Warthogs and buffalo blend in with the burn. A ranger indicates the fire was not intended to move so fast nor so far. We are shocked that this inferno raged while we ate lunch and relaxed in our tents just a few meters away, unknowing of the fire sweeping across the nearby savannah. Where will the animals graze? How do they escape the fire? By nightfall, we spot large herds of Topi and Kobs already returning. Our driver, Joseph, spotted a small adder! Life goes on in the savannah. 

Congo hippos swimming the border with Uganda

I’m just a few feet from the Congo and closest I ever will be. Hippos guard the mid-stream border. They need no passports to climb out either side. Their grunts and snorts sound just like the grunts and snorts of Ugandan hippos. It is a pleasant respite from driving the Edward Flats, south of Lake Edward. We fail to see a Shoebill or elephant. But there are numerous ass ends of warthogs as they seem to always be running away, tail high in the air. Is this the origin of “The Lion King” joke about Pumbaa and his farts? Many buffalo graze in the tall grasses. One would think the flats would be a popular spot for wildlife. We did see a plover nest. Our driver has eyes of an eagle! 

Our driver spots an adder – at night!

We never miss a bird! Four-footed, defeathered varieties don’t get a brake, but then all Topi pretty much look alike and there are hundreds of them. I am not a dedicated birder so lack the appreciation for such enthusiasm. However, there are hundreds of species here and some are very colorful and impressive. The eagles and owls are worth a stop. There are endless varieties of little guys, colorful and dull. I don’t care to be thrown from my seat while braking for each of them. Our drivers, Sam and Joseph, are unbelievably knowledgeable about birds. Spotting a small bird 100 feet away sitting in a tree and accurately naming it is a skill not many hold. Sam and Joseph do.

Thunderstorms and happy hour on the savannah at sunset can’t be beat. Our evening game drive results in lots of lion food but no lions. The flames of grass fires light the escarpment rim miles away and the sun slowly sinks, mostly hidden by storm clouds. I hear ominous thunder rumble across the grasslands and an occasional lightening bolt cuts the sky. A cool breeze begins and drops of rain fall. Just as we descend a small hill, we spot our surprise destination. Laid out before us is a table ladened with alcohol and finger foods. A perfect safari camp has been created for us. It even includes a ‘bush toilet.’ The views of the savannah across to the opposite escarpment is stunning. 

If the goal was to create a very happy hour, it was achieved. We all sample the local Uganda Waragi gin. The first gin and tonic is good, the second excellent. It is truly a happy hour and a lasting memory for us all. 

It is rare for lions to climb trees. There are 2 populations of such lions, one is found in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania. The other group is within the southern Ishasha region of Queen Elizabeth National Park. They are the main reason we are visiting this end of the park. 

This section of the park is where one sees the magnificent Sycamore Fig, broad, sturdy and blessed with massive branches as large and round as some tree trunks. The is the tree of choice for tree climbing lions. Ishasha’s leopards also favor climbing these trees. The large Acacias a second favorite roost for these big cats. Elephant, buffalo, antelopes and Topi do not climb the trees. 

Why do the lions climb into trees? One school of thought is these lions climb as a way to avoid the biting tsetse flies on the ground. Others say lions climb into the branches to enjoy the cool breeze. I think it is a way for the lions to study their dinner menu and enjoy the magnificent views. The height affords them the ability to gaze down on the numerous game, especially their favorite prey, the Kob.  

We spend an inordinate amount of time circling trees looking for a lion. Lions are normally seen casually sprawled over a massive branch several feet off the ground. In Ishasha I am told there are about 50 lions and the Lodge says others have spotted them. We keep circling. I am beginning to recognize the individual Sycamores. The best time to find tree climbing lions is after the sun rises. Well, the sun is up but no lions.

I see many magnificent Sycamores – all unadorned of lions. Personally, I think the lions are laying in the tall grasses heartilyNlaughing at us as we circled trees. I imagine Larson ‘s cartoons of the dairy cows standing upright conversing about day-to-day life until a car comes along. “Car!” one yells. Then they act like normal cows grazing in the field. 

You will not see many vehicles as this part of the park is off of the usual route and less visited than other parts of QENP. Thankfully, besides the tree climbing lions, there are many species of animals I do spot. Elephants, warthogs, large buffalo herds and countless types of antelopes graze about us. The Topi is more colorful than most but the Kob is the cutest. None climb trees. There are leopards who do climb trees but none are seen. I do see a beautiful eagle owl and a buzzard, but no lazing lions, not even the unique male lion whose mane is black. We stubbornly continue on several game drives over three days and only see empty limbs.

Elusive tree climbing lion

As we drive to the exit of the park, dispirited and wondering if we have been deceived, our arduous hunt for a tree climbing lion meets success! Not more than 300 feet from the gate, in what has become “our tree” lazes a female lion. Undisturbed by our purring rovers, she is stretched out on a thick limb, feet dangling over either side. Feeling no shame or desire to come to ground, her urine rains down on anyone unfortunate enough to be below her. Lifting her head to check out her environs, the lioness shows little concern for the upright primates snapping photos of her back end. She shifts her position slightly, flicks her tail, and returns to her quiet repose. Probably chuckling to herself about how long it took to find her – a big lion in a massive Sycamore tree.  

There have been many memorable moments in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The days were filled with wild game spread across various terrain. The sight of these animals in their natural habitats delights and humbles. As for me, back at our luxury tent in the bush, sipping sherry while watching the river and total darkness fall, listening to the calls of monkeys and leopards as they become masters of the night, I feel privileged to share this place with them. 

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