It's the signature post-hunt move of the leopard: once a meal has been caught, the best place to eat it is up in the trees, where bigger, turf-bound carnivores can't reach you. But as tourists and guides in South Africa's Londolozi Game Reserve recently witnessed, elevation doesn't always keep a leopard's catch safe from marauders. 

Ranger Amy Attenborough and her tourist group had been observing a well-known leopard female and her cub when word reached them of two local lionesses heading their way. The spotted cat had been resting at the base of a tree, her youngster roaming nearby and an impala meal stashed in the branches above. The approaching lions could only mean trouble. 

"There are times in the bush where one feels hugely conflicting emotions," writes Attenborough over at the Londolozi blog. "We love to see big cats interact with one another but when these situations occur, they are also vulnerable to injury, something none of us would ever wish on an animal."

Their relatively small size and solitary habits bump leopards down a few rungs on the predator hierarchy of the African bush. Pack animals like wild dogs and hyenas, whose strength comes from numbers, often chase the cats off their kills. And lions are an even bigger menace.

"Lions pose a very real threat to leopards," explains Attenborough. During her years as a Londolozi ranger, she's seen numerous cat-on-cat attacks, and several Londolozi leopards have died in violent clashes with their bigger kin. 

Luckily for this dozing mother, rustling footfalls gave the lions away, allowing the smaller cat just enough time to leap for the safety of the tree. But what happened next came as a surprise to Attenborough: intent on getting her paws on the spoils stashed in the tree, one of the lionesses started to climb. 

"Due to her weight and size and therefore much more limited climbing ability, the lioness wasn't able to climb as high as the leopard, [who] found safety up in the thinnest branches," she recalls.

The leopard may have evaded danger, but it also forfeited her hard-earned meal, which was quickly commandeered by the bigger cat. Some moments later, the second – and younger – lioness joined her accomplice in the branches, hoping to score a few scraps from the carcass. 

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 at least attempt easily accessible branches.

As the lions gorged below, the leopard put her superior climbing skills to use: she tightroped her way overhead to an adjacent tree, and the safety beyond. Her cub, meanwhile, had already made its own getaway, disappearing out of sight towards a nearby river, where its mother also followed. 

"Despite this being an amazing scene to witness, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief when the female and her cub managed to escape the encounter unscathed," says Attenborough. 

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Top header image: Chris Fifield-Smith/Flickr