A child peers into the Lion Exhibit at the Zoological Center Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan hoping to spot a lion, the king of the jungle.
“They’re not on display today. Let’s move on to the giraffes.” Suddenly, the child tugs back his parent’s hand. “Look, look! A lion. It’s in a tree!” In the past month, most of the lions in the zoo’s exhibit have started to regularly climb trees, which is surprising many visitors.
While lions habitually scaling trees in nature is rare, it’s even rarer for lions in captivity to perform this act.
The only wild lions to commonly climb trees are found in two areas in Africa – Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. It is assumed these lions rest in trees to escape the large, biting tsetse fly and to cool off from the summer heat.
All the zoo’s 13 lions are African, although it’s unknown if any of them are from either of these regions in Uganda or Tanzania.
But the zoo’s lions climb trees for a distinctive reason, explains a spokeswoman.
The younger lions in the exhibit were the first to scramble up trees.
Because the zoo’s pride of lions is particularly large (it is composed of nine lions), the more mature, stronger lions often scrap with the younger ones. Perhaps during one of these scuffles, she says, a younger lion fled up a tree and discovered “an amazing new world” outside their fenced exhibit.
Next to the Lion Exhibit is the African Park where herds of animals, such as giraffes, roam. The pride of lions was observed smelling these herbivores even before they began climbing, but once this lion looked out from the tree, it likely saw for the first time a giraffe or a rhinoceros close by.
After several lions realized there was life all around them, much of the pride began ascending trees.
But the zoo’s staff wasn’t sure how to respond. On the one hand, the zoo recognized the benefits of the lions climbing trees. It adds another dimension to their lives in captivity.
It’s “important” to the zoo that the lions are “having fun,” says the spokeswoman. “It’s something that makes their days more interesting.”
However, the staff initially decided to fence off the trees because it was difficult for zookeepers to force the lions out of them at night – the lions are required to sleep inside.
After further deliberation, the staff removed most of the fences, letting the lions climb freely.
The zoo isn’t entirely sure what it will do in the long term. In the meantime, the lions can be seen in trees as often as two to three times each week, typically when they are most active, early in the morning or in the evening.
Most often in the trees are the pride’s dominant male and two lionesses. The younger, three- and four-year-old lions are also becoming better climbers. The staff believes that the zoo’s unique layout contributed to this phenomenon.
In both the Lion Exhibit and the African Park, animals are able to wander around more than in most zoos. The Lion Exhibit is also an open area that is only enclosed by fences, which allows the lions to look out to the African Park.
Dr. Bruce Patterson, curator of mammals at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago who has significantly studied lions, also points to trees in the Lion Exhibit as probably enabling the lions “to express a wider range of lion behavior” than in most zoos.
Although Patterson doesn’t associate tree climbing with zoo populations of lions, he says that most lions “can certainly scramble up steep slopes of trees.”
He recalls watching a lion in Nairobi National Park ascend branches five meters high to track a fleeing giraffe it was pursuing. Perhaps the lions in the Israeli Safari are doing the same thing.