When it comes to food, lions will take advantage of an opportunity when they see one ... but it rarely involves hoisting themselves up into a tree! That's precisely what played out in front of lucky tourists in South Africa's Londolozi Game Reserve recently, when a lioness set her sights on a leopard's hard-earned meal.

In the world of big cats, trees are usually leopard territory. The spotted cats' smaller size makes them vulnerable to bigger felines like lions, or to animals whose strength comes from numbers, like hyenas. But thanks to their amazing tree-climbing skills, leopards have another option. High up in the branches, the cats – and their lunch – are usually safe. Sometimes, though, elevation is just not enough.

Last month, safari guide Sean Cresswell, along with two other Londolozi guides, tracked down a female leopard and her nine-month-old cub, and the group stopped their vehicles to allow guests to observe the feline pair feeding on the carcass of a young kudu. The adult cat had probably killed the antelope the previous night.

Having eaten enough for the day, the younger leopard eventually sauntered over to some bushes to rest. The mother, meanwhile, began the task of moving what remained of the carcass towards the safety of a nearby tree.

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The adult female dragged the heavy carcass towards a large tree. Image: Don Heyneke.

The tree's main trunk was slanted, which made the leopard's climb easier, and she later returned to her elevated perch to resume eating once again. But the peaceful scene didn't last long.

"A few minutes later she suddenly became very alert, staring into the distance ... She was no longer interested in her meal as she repositioned in the canopy to get a better view, eyes wide open and ears forward," writes Cresswell on the Londolozi blog.

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After hoisting her meal into the tree, the mother leopard began eating once more – but it wasn't long before she sensed trouble approaching. Image: Don Heyneke (left) and Nick Kleer (right).

Sensing that trouble wasn't far off, the female leopard abandoned her carcass and cautiously began making her way down the tree. "It looked as if she was stalking, but from a tree. None of us had seen this type of behaviour before and were desperate to find out what she could see that was causing her such concern," says Cresswell.

As soon as her paws touched the ground, the leopard fled from the still-unseen danger, followed quickly by her cub. 

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Sensing danger, the leopard makes a quick getaway. Image: Nick Kleer

The tourists and guides stayed put, and the group didn't have to wait long before the culprit was revealed. A few moments later, the figure of a lioness emerged from a nearby thicket, and a second female followed close behind. The interlopers must have picked up the smell of the leapard's hard-earned meal and were now zeroing in on a free lunch.

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Before long, the culprit was revealed. Image: Sean Cresswell.

"Without any hesitation, [the first lioness] took the same path up the tree as the female [leopard] did only a few minutes before, straight towards the kudu carcass," says Cresswell.

While lions are not known for their tree-climbing abilities, the behaviour isn't as rare as you'd think. Young lions will often scale trees when they play (being lighter helps), and prides in certain parts of Africa are famous for it. Most fully grown adults will attempt only easily accessible branches, and this female's job was made easier by the slant of the tree. 

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The lioness's much heavier frame made her climb up the tree more difficult. Image: Don Heyneke (left) and Nick Kleer (right)
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Image: Sean Cresswell

"The lioness continued higher and outward, needing to pull herself up. Her claws ripped away chunks of bark as her much larger body edged its way along the branch," Cresswell recalls.

The tough climb was worth it. After reaching her prize, the cat settled in for a few mouthfuls, but soon grew uncomfortable amongst the branches and decided to relocate her stolen meal to a more lion-appropriate location.

As for the leopards, both were spotted by rangers later that day, having put plenty of distance between themselves and their foes. "Their stolen meal was nothing to worry about as both had fed somewhat and, more importantly, escaped any conflict with two large lionesses: a successful day in the wild!"

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One she reached the carcass, the lioness settled in for a few quick bites. Images: Nick Kleer 
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Uncomfortable in her elevated perch, the cat soon decided to relocate, taking her stolen meal with her. Image: Don Heyneke
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Image: Sean Cresswell

For more info on why lions sometimes take to the trees, check out this video:


Top header image: CH&Al, Flickr