What excites you about an African safari? For many it’s the thought of seeing big cats in the wild: cheetah, leopard and – in particular – lion. Imagine sitting quietly in an open-sided game drive vehicle as a shaggy-maned lion walks calmly by; or that heady mix of excitement and dread as you watch a lioness stalk her prey.
Lions are Africa’s most iconic animal, yet the sad truth is that these powerful predators are under serious threat. 75 years ago there were 450,000 lions in the wild but the latest surveys put that figure at around 23,000 – that’s a staggering drop of 90%. Should this trend continue; there’s a very real concern that Africa’s wild lions could face extinction by 2050. What a tragic loss that would be!
One of the mighty lions that stalks Botswana's Duba Plains.
Hunting vs Photographic Safaris
One of the main threats facing Africa’s big cats is loss of habitat. Lions are contained within pockets of wilderness, safe zones surrounded by rural villages or farms. This can lead to conflict as predators attack livestock, which in turn leads to farmers killing the predators. Poaching too in on the rise as the demand for lion bones grows. And then there’s hunting.
The death of Cecil the lion, just outside Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, triggered important discussions around trophy hunting. An estimated 600 lions are legally hunted a year, which has led to organisations including ‘The International Fund for Animal Welfare’ and ‘The Born Free Foundation’ petitioning the U.S. government to list lions as endangered - and in so doing give them full protection.
Some argue that hunting generates much needed funds for conservation, but according to the North American Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Jeff Flocken: “Legal trophy hunting is measured by the millions it contributes to Africa's economy while non-lethal nature viewing [is measured] by the billions.
He continues: “I don't want to devalue [legal sport hunting] because it brings dollars to the government. But it pales in comparison to all the people who go to Africa to responsibly view wildlife. Nature tourism generates 13 to 15 times more revenue than trophy hunting.”
Game drive in Savanna Private Reserve, part of the wildlife-rich Sabi Sands.
Best Places to See Lions in the Wild
Kenya’s best known reserve, the Masai Mara, has one of the highest lion densities in the world. Many safari goers travel to the Mara to see the wildebeest migration (June to October), but lion sightings are good all year round with the open grasslands allowing for clear, easy viewing. You might already have seen some of the prides on the popular BBC TV series ‘Big Cat Diaries’.
- Where to stay: Governors’ Camp has a magical setting along the winding bank of the Mara River.
In Botswana’s Okavango Delta the lions are larger than your average big cats. The best place to go is the Duba Plains in the northern Okavango Delta, where large and remarkably powerful lion have adapted to their unique environment by learning to swim as well as hunting buffalo.
Where to stay: Duba Plains
A powerful lioness silently stalks a herd of buffalo grazing on Duba Plains.
Tanzania's Serengeti National Park is described as ideal big cat country. Your chances of spotting lions on the hunt in northern Serengeti Park are particularly good from July to October when the wildebeest become fair game as they make the perilous Mara River crossing. In the southern part of the Serengeti things heat up from January to March when the wildebeest are calving, providing easy targets (vulnerable calves) for lions and other predators.
Best place to stay: Serengeti Under Canvas
Zambia's Kafue National Park includes an area known as the Busanga Plains where large lion prides are noted for hunting Cape buffalo - unusual behaviour for lions. This large national park covers about 22,500km² of fairly undeveloped and remote territory, which means fewer game viewing vehicles crowding around the best wildlife sightings.
Best place to stay: Shumba Camp lies in the midst of a number of pride territories, and lions are often seen in and around camp.
A lioness makes herself at home on a shady deck at Shumba Camp.
South Africa's Kruger National Park - and in particular the Sabi Sand Game Reserve - are one of the best places in Africa to see the Big 5, including a large population of lions. Being a private reserve, the Sabi Sands allows for off-road driving and is known for its close up wildlife encounters. You can also choose from some of Africa's top luxury lodges.
Best place to stay: Savanna Private Game Reserve
This beautiful moment between a lioness and her cub was captured at Savanna Private Reserve.
Read more about The Best Places to See Wild Lions in Africa.