On my many trips to Africa on photo safaris, I had heard of the lions of Lake Manyara National Park that have a propensity to climb and sit in trees. Since I had not heard of lions climbing trees in the Serengeti or in other wildlife game parks in Africa, I confidently told my clients that joined me on Safaris, that the only possibility of seeing lions in trees would be at Lake Manyara. I also explained that it was a dream of mine to actually witness this phenomena, but very rare occurance. In my previous trips to Lake Manyara, I once had seen a pride of lions in a tree, but they were in a dark canopy of a very dense tree. It was possible to tell that they were in the tree, but impossible to photograph.
On the May 2006 Safari, I not only lived my dream… but also was made out to be a liar.
The dream comes true -
Lake Manyara is a small game park at the foot of the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania. Although a small park, it is home to a wide variety of wildlife in large numbers. On every visit I have seen large numbers of elephant, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, buffallo, gazelles, wart hogs, blue and vervet monkeys, troops of hundreds of baboons, and amazing bird life in just a few hours in the park. More rare but always a possibility are lions and leopards as well. After about 3 hours in the park during which we had seen a lot, the other car in our group radioed that the a lioness was in a tree next to the road. Our driver took us straight there… right through a herd of 30+ elephants without taking the time to stop and watch them. When we arrived at the tree, there was a female in the tree and 2 males in the grass below. Not only were we witnessing a lion in a tree, but it was late afternoon, the sunlight was warm, and the lion was not hidden behind branches or leaves…. a photographers dream.
As we watched, one of the males got up and looked longingly at his mate in the tree for several minutes. Then, as if a movie director shouted ‘Action!’, the male made it’s way to the tree, and started to climb. We were so close that I had to drop my camera with the telephoto attached and pick up the body with the wider lens on it (28-135mm) The shots of him climbing are some of the most exciting wildlife photographs I have ever taken. (hint here… if I did not have the other camera handy with a wider lens and had to change lenses I would have missed the climbing shots).
Â No sooner had the dominant male climbed the tree when the other younger male decided to climb to a different branch of the same tree.
Once up there and looking like he is in charge, he laid his head to sleep with a silly grin on his face. Then there were 3 in the tree (not a great photo). The wonder of the Lake Manyara tree climbing lions had played itself out for us in a way that one could only dream. I put the camera down, and just watched… for the first time observing these amazing creatures from below. It was no longer about getting the best shot… but rather absorbing the experience. I still get tingles down my spine when I think of it.
The Lie -
Over the next 6 days in the Serengeti, we saw almost as many lions in trees as we saw on the ground… which made a liar of me. We always see lions in the Serengeti… normally 4-5 prides each day. In the years I have been going to the Serengeti, I had never experienced or even heard of others having seen lions in trees. I felt like a fool. I am told that during particular times of year when the flies are bad, the lions climb trees for relief from the flies. Although the flies never bothered us humans, many of the lions had hundreds of flies on their faces and could hardly keep their eyes open.
Normally a photographing lions in the Serengeti is all about getting some separation between the lion and the similarly colored plains. Photographing lions in trees is just like photographing birds. Over expose to keep them from looking silouetted. The amount depends on the percentage of the frame that is the lion versus the percentage that is sky… and over compensate if it is a white bland sky. In the end, the photographs while providing me with a living… more importantly provide me with a record of memories that first of all no one would believe if I couldn’t show them, and second of all fill me with awe and love for the wildlife that has managed to survive against all odds in this developing world. The memories last a lifetime… but the feelings they engender are even more special… they fuel my soul.