The best places to see wild lions in Africa

Aptly named the ‘King of Beasts’, lions are an iconic African wildlife species and are often high up on many travellers’ list of things to see when visiting Africa.

However, despite their popularity with tourists, they are not as common as one might imagine, and sightings are never guaranteed. A century ago there were as many as 200,000 wild lions in Africa, but the current estimate is of 20,000 lions, over 20% of their former range.

For the best chance of seeing lions in the wild, it would be advisable to head to one of Africa’s ‘lion hotspots’.

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A magnificent lion sighting in Khwai, northern Botswana © Simon Espley

Here are a few of the top places to see wild lions in Africa:

1. Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem

Stretching over 24,000km² from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in Kenya, the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystems is home to one of the highest densities of lions in the world.

Within this area, the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania boasts the oldest lion research project in Africa, The Serengeti Lion Project, which has been operating for nearly 50 years. In addition, expect good lion encounters in the Ngorongoro Crater, on the fringes of the Serengeti ecosystem. Outside of the Serengeti area, another excellent place in Tanzania to see lions is the remote Ruaha National Park. This arid, baobab-infested safari paradise offers remote safaris for the intrepid explorer.

Across the border in Kenya, the wide-open savannah plains of the Maasai Mara Reserve make for excellent lion viewing of large prides that are accustomed to tourist vehicles. The Mara lions have been made famous by the popular BBC TV series, Big Cat Diaries.

2. Northern Botswana

From dry savannahs to lush wetlands, northern Botswana has it all, and lions abound in this vast wild wilderness.  These lions have adapted to their varied environments and have a wide range of prey species, from elephants and hippos to buffaloes and impala. And in the harsh dry winters when water is scarce, lions even compete with crocodiles to scavenge on rotting carcasses. Okavango Delta lions swim between islands and negotiate channels and floodplains during the annual flood season (June to August) in search of prey.

The Okavango Delta (and Moremi Game Reserve) hosts the largest lion population in the world, but also expect to see lions in the adjoining Chobe, Savute, Kwando/Linyanti/Selinda and Khwai areas in the unfenced wilderness of northern Botswana. In fact further south in Botswana, the Kalahari and Tuli also host good lion populations.

3. Greater Kruger National Park

The Greater Kruger National Park is South Africa’s premier wildlife destination and is home to the majority of the country’s wild lions. The national park itself is the size of Wales, and is made larger because of unfenced western borders with various private game reserves, including Klaserie, Sabi Sand and Timbavati (famous for its naturally occurring population of white lions).

Lions occur in all areas of the park, but they can be tough to find in the more remote northern areas. The large open plains of the central areas, and prey density further south, means that more lions are seen in these areas.

4. Northern Namibia

Namibia’s lion population is spread across the northern reaches of this arid country, with Etosha National Park hosting the most easily accessible population. Etosha lions are best viewed in the dry winter months, and the best strategy to view them is to park at one of many waterholes and wait for them to come to you.

Perhaps the most fascinating Namibian lions are the desert-adapted lions, which occur in the remote Kaokoland / Damaraland Region of the north-west, an area of sand dunes and spare vegetation, wedged between Etosha and the barren Skeleton Coast. These formidable lions eke out a living despite the harsh landscape, low prey density and conflicts with farmers.

The best time to view the desert-adapted lions is during the dry winter season (June to October). During this time, they can often be found hunting around the sparse water sources or lazing about in the open, soaking up the morning sun.

5. Luangwa Valley, Zambia

Zambia’s reserves and national parks host a significant proportion of Africa’s lion population, the majority of which can be found in the Luangwa Valley.

The Luangwa Valley is the birthplace of African walking safaris; a very special wildlife experience for any safari enthusiast. Encountering wild lions whilst on foot with an experienced guide is one of Africa’s quintessential safari experiences.

South Luangwa National Park particularly offers some incredible lion viewing opportunities, with frequent sightings of large prides of up to 30 lions. The smaller, more remote North Luangwa also offers excellent lion sightings, for the more intrepid traveller.

Elsewhere in Zambia, Kafue National Park is a good place to see lions, particularly in the Busanga Plains area – a vast open floodplain system in the north of the park.

6. Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Hwange hosts a large population of lions and prey species – including large herds of buffalo, a favourite item in the menu. Zimbabwe’s largest national park offers excellent lion habitat – including grass plains, deciduous woodlands and thorn savannah, and the network of waterholes provide good positioning for tourists wishing to experience a lion kill. Just a shorty drive from Victoria Falls, Hwange is a convenient add-on to your southern African safari.

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