Although lions are the most iconic wildlife species of Africa, these predators are not as common as one would imagine, with fewer than 23 000 lions remaining in the wild today. Lions are under serious threat today, having disappeared from 80% of their natural range in Africa. Travelling to one of the best places in Africa to see lions in their natural habitat will improve your chances of witnessing these increasingly rare and powerful carnivores.
Best Places to See Lions in Africa - wild lion hotspots
The majority of Africa's last wild lions are to be found in the East African countries of Tanzania and Kenya, and the Southern African countries of Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. If sighting lions in the untamed bush is at the top of your bucket list, then travelling to the following regions will provide better opportunities for watching them interact, hunt and, the most likely, nap.
The Serengeti Ecosystem, spanning northern Tanzania and southern Kenya, is the best wilderness region to see lions in Africa when it comes to numbers, hosting the largest populations on the continent.
1. Tanzania's Northern Safari Circuit: Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater & Lake Manyara - East Africa
Tanzania hosts the largest lion population in Africa, with the bulk of the lions inhabiting the game parks of the popular Northern Tanzania Safari Circuit.
Serengeti National Park - big cat country
The best place to see lions in Tanzania is Serengeti National Park, described as ideal big cat country, along with Masai Mara (the part of the Serengeti Ecosystem that lies in Kenya). The oldest lion research project in Africa has been operating in the Serengeti for over 46 years. The Serengeti Lion Project studies and monitors lion populations in the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and other Northern Tanzanian parks.
The legendary wildebeest migration takes place in Serengeti National Park and the Masai Mara National Reserve every year, attracting attendant predators including hungry lions.
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.
Ngorongoro Crater - high concentration of large lions
The close second lion hot spot is Ngorongoro Crater, home to one of the highest densities of lions. Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area borders the Serengeti National Park, which makes it easy to visit both in one trip and maximise your lion viewing opportunities. Lake Manyara also lies nearby and is worth visiting for its lions, as is Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania.
The Ngorongoro Crater is the world's largest intact caldera (collapsed volcano) forming a natural bowl where high concentrations of wildlife roam. Thanks to abundant prey the lions in Ngorongoro are larger than the lions found in most other areas. Your chances of seeing lions in this relatively compact and diverse conservation area are very high, given the high density of these big cats. The lion population is isolated in the crater, giving rise to problems with inbreeding, but this is still a top-notch spot for witnessing lion behaviour in the wild.
Lake Manyara National Park - famous for tree-climbing lions
Lake Manyara also lies nearby and is worth visiting for its lions, as is Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania. The scenic Lake Manyara National Park is a small national park, close to the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park, offering excellent lion sightings. Lake Manyara Park is famous for its tree-climbing lions, a feline behviour usually displayed by leopards.
One of the largest (55,000km²) game reserves in Africa, Selous in southern Tanzania is a good place to track lions on foot.
2. Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya - East Africa
Masai Mara, considered by many to be the best wildlife destination on earth, is home to one of Africa's highest concentrations of lions. Some say this scenic Kenyan game park is the best place in Africa to see lions in the wild, but others claim that neighbouring Serengeti in Tanzania takes first place. In Masai Mara Game Reserve you can expect to see lions regularly and often by the pride. Like the Serengeti Plains the terrain in Masai Mara is mostly open savannah, which makes it easier to see the lions in this magnificent African-dream setting.
The best time to see the Great Migration in Masai Mara is between June and October when vast herds of wildebeest stampede across the plains, drawing plenty of lions.
The lion prides of Masai Mara Reserve are the famous felines documented by the BBC in the popular TV series called Big Cat Diaries. Five lion prides, including the prominent Marsh Pride, were filmed in and around Musiara Marsh, Rhino Ridge and Paradise Plain, on the eastern banks of the Mara River in Kenya. The creators of the Disney documentary African Cats, also captured footage of lions in this part of Masai Mara. The Bila Shaka Luggah area in central Masai Mara is also prime lion territory and the Mara Triangle in the northern part of reserve is a remote locale for observing lions.
National Geographic and explorers in residence, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, co-founded the Big Cats Initiative to raise awareness and helps save lions worldwide, including populations in Masai Mara.
Recommended Safaris for Seeing Lions in Kenya & Tanzania:
- Luxury East Africa Safari - Governors’ Camp in Masai Mara, Singita Grumeti Reserve (private concession) bordering Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, as well as Lake Elmenteita in Kenya.
- East Africa Game Parks & Gorillas Safari - Ngorongoro Crater, Singita Grumeti Reserve (private concession) bordering Serengeti National Park, Mara River in Masai Mara and Volcanoes National Park for Gorilla Trekking.
3. South Luangwa & Kafue in Zambia - Southern Africa
In Southern Africa Zambia's South Luangwa National Park offers some of the best lion sightings, hosting prides of up to 30 lions on its wild plains.
South Luangwa - large prides in the remote wilderness
Lions can be sighted in any part of South Luangwa Park, but in the southern region large lion prides have fairly small territories, providing superb sightings. This Zambian park is a pioneer in walking safaris, offering bush walks and night game drives that produce superb lion sightings. Compared to some of the more famous game parks, such as Masai Mara and Ngorongoro, South Luangwa Valley is quite unexplored and less touristy. Game viewing in this less crowded reserve, increases the chances of having the lions to yourself during lion encounters.
Kafue National Park - unusual lion behaviour and less tourists
The Kafue Flats region of central Zambia is home to sizeable lion prides, known for their tree climbing antics. Lions in the Busanga Plains area of the Kafue Flats National Park are noted for hunting Cape buffalo, which is 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.
Recommended Safaris for Seeing Lions in Zambia:
- Explore Zambia - Victoria Falls and South Luangwa National Park.
- Luxury Zambia Safari - Victoria Falls, South Luangwa National Park and Lower Zambezi.
4. Okavango Delta in Botswana - Southern Africa
Northern Botswana is one of the best places to see lions in Africa, not only for its large prides, but also because the lions display some peculiar hunting habits in parts of the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park.
Okavango Delta - the biggest lions displaying unusual hunting behaviour
Like the Masai Mara and Serengeti, this part of the Okavango Delta is home to lions that have attracted extensive research from top conservationists like Dereck and Beverly Joubert.
In the Selinda Spillway area the lions sometimes hunt hippos, which makes for some rare and exciting sightings near Selinda Camp. The best place for lion watching is however Duba Island, where prey and predators are cut off from the rest of the delta by deep waterways resulting in interesting hunting behaviour and massive, well-fed lions. The lions of Botswana are bigger than your average lions found throughout Africa and on the Duba Plains in the northern Okavango Delta, the specimens are remarkably large and powerful. These lion prides (Skimmer and Tsaro) have adapted to their unique environment by learning to swim in deep water and hunt buffalos by day, which is atypical for these usually nocturnal big cats. This uncommon lion behaviour gives onlookers the chance to witness epic hunts during the day - a extraordinary and enviable opportunity. This in-depth article discusses the isolated Duba lions and their effective hunting ways.
The 65,000-acre Duba concession area is where famous National Geographic explorers Dereck and Beverly Joubert have conducted years of dedicated research, including the filming of documentaries such as Relentless Enemies and The Last Lions. (This Skimmer blog has great images of the Tsaro and Skimmer prides of Duba and Lebala).
Moremi Game Reserve on Chief's Island in the Okavango Delta also comes out tops and is referred to as the Predator Capital of Africa, which includes a healthy population of lions.
Chobe National Park - tenacious lion prides of Savute
The Savute Marsh area of Chobe National Park is home to a pride of lions, which became famous for hunting elephants, mammals that are typically not preyed upon by lions. When food has been scarce in the past, these 30 or so lions have worked together to take down big elephants. Now that the Savuti River is flowing again there is more game for the lions to hunt, so they seem to have quit hunting elephants for the time being.
Recommended Safaris for Seeing Lions in Northern Botswana:
- Luxury Botswana Safari - Chobe, the Okavango and Makgadikgadi Pans.
- Botswana Family Safari - Okavango Delta, Moremi, Savute, Chobe and Makgadikgadi Pans.
5. Etosha National Park in Namibia - Southern Africa
Etosha is home around 300 – 350 adults lions, which are commonly sighted hunting at one of the numerous watering holes dotting this arid national park. The best time for catching some lion action is during the dry winter season (June to October) when vegetation is sparse and prey gathers at the scarce water sources. In the winter months lions often lie in the roads, especially in the early mornings, to avoid dew covered grass and soak up the warmth of the roads, which increases the chances of getting up close to them.
Etosha National Park is known for its floodlit waterholes, located at the camps, which enable safari-goers to catch a glimpse of lions drinking and hunting after dark. The CBS television wildlife documentary, The Lions of Etosha, documents a lion pride over five years. Some of the best watering holes for seeing lions are Dolomite, Rateldraf, Okondeka, Nebrownii, Okaukuejo, Homob, Salvadora, Goas, Rietfontein, Chudop, Kalkheuwel, and Klein Okevi. The lion population in western Etosha is one of the most ferocious, often coming into conflict with hyenas and other competitors.
The Skeleton Coast National Park and Kuene region of Namibia are also home to desert adapted lions, numbering about nine prides (see Africa Geographic for more).
Recommended Safaris for Seeing Lions in Namibia:
- Flying Namibia Safari - Fish River Canyon, Sossesvlei, Swakopmund, Twyfelfontein and Etosha National Park.
- Best of Namibia Circuit - Sossusvlei, Damaraland and Etosha National Park.
6. Kruger National Park and Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa - Southern Africa
Lastly Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands in South Africa also host large lion populations. In the private Sabi Sand Game Reserve night drives are offered for catching the lions hunting, providing exciting sightings. Kruger Park hosts healthy populations of Africa's Big Five, including a large population of lions. The bonus of game viewing in Sabi Sand is that the guides are generally incredibly knowledgeable and the reserve is known for its close up wildlife encounters. Winter is the best time to visit these South African game parks, when vegetation is not as thick. Kruger National Park is easily accessible and suitable for self-drive safaris if you prefer to search out lions on your own.
Recommended Safaris for Seeing Lions in South Africa:
- Luxury Cape Town & Sabi Sands Safari Escape - Cape Town and Sabi Sand Game Reserve.
- Southern African Dream - Cape Town, the Garden Route, Kruger National Park, Victoria Falls and the Okavango Delta.
Sighting Lions Successfully - other factors that count
When it comes to searching out Africa's Big Five, with a particular emphasis on seeing the king of beasts, your success rate is largely determined not only by where you go on safari, but with whom. Choosing the right African safari, provided by a leading safari company can make all the difference in the quality of your game viewing experience. Expert guides know where to take you within the game reserves and national parks - an important element of success, especially in the vast wilderness areas like the Serengeti National Park. The highly qualified and experienced guides are also better at seeing the lions in the bush and know when the best times are to find specific prides according to their behavioural patterns.
For advice on finding the best lodge for your African safari to see lions or for bespoke itineraries, speak to one of our luxury travel experts.
Banner Image by Gigi H on Flickr.