Ever seen a hyena climb a tree? No? Well, there’s a good reason for that …

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While on a recent safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, UK-resident Steven Hayley filmed a hyena’s ungainly attempt at retrieving an impala carcass from the fork of a tree where it had been stashed by a leopard the previous evening. Hyenas are expert kleptoparasites and often use their brawn to chase leopards and other predators off their kills. To evade the wily hyenas, leopards hoist their meals into the treetops where they will be out of reach of their rivals. That is, unless the kill is stashed too low in the branches and is spotted by an overly ambitious hyena.

Hayley was enjoying an afternoon game drive in the central section of the Kruger Park in September this year when he was lucky enough to find a leopard feasting on an impala in the boughs of a tree. Aware that leopards often revisit their kills to finish off their meals, Hayley returned at first light the following day in the hopes of catching another glimpse of the elusive cat. Instead he found a pair of hyenas eager to get at the remains of the impala.

Hayley stuck around and, after about 20 minutes, his patience was rewarded when one of the hyenas began scrambling up the tree trunk to get to the carcass. “You very rarely see hyenas climb anything at all so this was extremely exciting!” Hayley told Latest Sightings.

The ascent was successful and the hyena quickly began feeding on what remained of the impala. Emboldened by its comrade's tree-climbing success, the second hyena also made an attempt to get to the meal, but was forced back by the first hyena who wanted the spoils for itself.

After a few minutes spent trying to dislodge the carcass, the plan went awry when a misstep sent the hyena hurtling to the ground. Undeterred, the determined predator “got straight back up to try again,” according to Hayley. “I found this unbelievable especially after such a heavy fall from quite a fair height!”

Eventually, the hyena clambered back down the tree having failed to free up the carcass. “The two hyenas ended up fighting for the scraps that had fallen to the ground and finally gave up and left.”

Hyenas have long been unfairly reduced to the role of lowly scavenger, overshadowed by sleeker predators like lions and leopards. In reality, hyenas are highly proficient hunters capable of tackling large prey, or overpowering other carnivores to snatch an easy meal. When it comes to arboreal abilities, however, leopards have definitely got the upper hand (or paw in this case).

Hyenas, unlike leopards, lack retractable claws – a morphological trait that restricts their ability to climb. Their size and physiological makeup are also not geared for climbing. Leopards, meanwhile, are amongst the most proficient of the feline tree-climbers. Powerful shoulders and forelimbs, protractile claws, a low centre of gravity, and a high power-to-weight ratio all combine to make these cats adept at scaling trees. Strength is only half of the equation though and leopards are also adapted to be agile so they dart from branch to branch. Their front legs are not fused to their collarbones and are only connected by muscles and ligaments allowing free movement, while a mobile backbone helps the cats to turn and twist, sometimes shifting their upper bodies 180 degrees relative to their lower bodies. Long, sturdy tails aid with balance.

It’s an impressive suite of skills, but it’s all for nought if the carcass is left exposed in the lower branches.

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Top header image: gundy, Flickr