Why Do Leopards Hoist Their Kills Up Trees?

By Gareth Mann, Ph.D.
Director, Leopard Program

Leopard in tree

Many carnivores store food to eat later – after all, hunting is hard work and it makes sense to try to eat as much of the kill as possible, often over the course of several days. But unless the kill has been made in a very convenient location, the carnivore will need to leave the half-eaten carcass alone, maybe to get water from a nearby stream or to tend to its cubs. But they also don’t want scavengers to steal their food, so they hide it, usually under a bush or some leaves. 

Unless the carnivore in question is a leopard. Leopards often haul their kills up into a tree, out of reach of other carnivores, few of which can match a leopard’s climbing agility. They then leave the carcass and return at their leisure, safely enjoying a prolonged meal high up in a tree. 

Leopard with meat

Why do leopards do this? They are excellent climbers, but pulling a carcass that almost matches (or may exceed) their body weight up a tree is extremely hard work! Few other cats go to so much trouble to protect their food.  

A study done by Panthera in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa found that leopards hoisted just over 50 percent of their kills. Leopards tended to hoist kills that weighed between 40 percent and 140 percent of their body mass – presumably because smaller kills could be eaten in a single sitting, and larger kills were often too heavy or just too big to be hoisted. Leopards were also more likely to hoist their kill if hyenas were present. Leopards lose around 20 percent of their kills to kleptoparasitism (in other words, having the kill stolen by other carnivores). Hyenas were responsible for approximately half of the kills stolen in the course of this study. By hoisting the kill, leopards prevent hyenas from stealing it, so they can devour the whole carcass themselves. Leopards were generally able to feed on hoisted kills for longer periods than kills that were not hoisted.

Leopard silhouette

So why don’t leopards hoist ALL of their kills? Although hyenas account for just over half of the kills stolen from leopards, the next biggest thieves are…other leopards! Hoisting a carcass makes it highly visible. This can attract male leopards in particular, who are quite happy to steal kills from females or younger leopards. This may also explain why male leopards are much more likely to hoist kills than females. Female leopards are much smaller than males and can be chased off a kill by a hungry (and unchivalrous) male, whereas male leopards are unlikely to have to defend their kill from another male. 

So, if you ever happen to see the somewhat grisly sight of a half-eaten carcass hanging from a tree in the African savanna, it’s worth hanging around – you might just see a leopard coming back for second (or third) helpings! 

Learn more about leopards.