Africa’s King of Beasts

When considering Africa’s wildlife, lion are surely the first creatures to spring to mind.

The subject of Hollywood movies and literary masterpieces, the quarry of every safari traveler, lion strike wonder and trepidation into the hearts of those fortunate enough to find themselves face-to-face with the King of the Jungle.

Impressively powerful, and invariably larger than one would first expect, a fully-grown male could dispense with a defenseless human with a churlish snarl, but unpleasant interactions are mercifully rare.

Lion know better than to tangle with a game vehicle and have learned that mankind is a threat more than a menu item, allowing us to observe them in close proximity when following safety protocols and feline etiquette.

Lion exist almost exclusively in Africa alone, and have adapted to thrive in flood plains, deserts and the more familiar ranging grasslands of the great plains. Despite weighing as much as 420 pounds (190kg), and with claws as long as one and a half inches (4cm), they instill an inherent and almost insatiable urge for one to depart the steely security of a game vehicle for a quick cuddle or belly rub. This, of course, is ill-advised unless you are long overdue a pressing appointment with your ancestors.

Their renown and seeming prevalence belie the truth of their fragility. Erased from as much as 90 percent of their natural territory and diminished by almost half in recent decades, there is an estimated 23,000 wild lion remaining across Africa which, given the continent’s scale, is alarmingly few.

Conservation efforts and designated parks and reserves are witnessing a noticeable increase in populations, recent surveys gratifyingly observing an increase of several thousand.

Docile by day and finding sanctuary from the sun in hidden pockets of foliage, a lion sighting, though frequent, is by no means guaranteed. There are, however, a collection of destinations in which the king reigns supreme, and we share with you the best places to witness Panthera leo leo in the wild:

The Serengeti & Masai Mara

Though in separate countries, these adjoining national parks, along with South Africa’s Kruger, are among the most frequented and obvious locations for lion viewing. With public access, it is possible to take a day trip into the parks specifically to see lion, but they often dwell in the farthest reaches of these vast reserves. Private camps offer the opportunity to access these remote locations, not only avoiding the crowds, but also improving one’s chance of seeking out the elusive big cats. The Masai Mara and the Serengeti also possess a distinctly unique opportunity, created not by the lion, but by their prey.

Throughout the year, the Great Migration circumnavigates the two immense parks, with herbivores in their millions following the greener grass and spawning the next generation as they traverse the savanna. With an endless supply of fresh food, lion also join the herds for portions of their journey, and it is this that makes the Serengeti and Masai Mara particularly rewarding. Though lion are notoriously ineffective hunters, with an average of only 30 percent of hunts being successful, the thrill and anticipation of the chase is a wonder to behold. When combined with dramatic river crossings and the unfathomable volume of creatures, this makes the Great Migration of the Mara and Serengeti a spectacular opportunity to witness lion.

Mana Pools, Zimbabwe

The true celebrity of Mana Pools National Park is the Zambezi River. Located in the more remote north of Zimbabwe, Mana Pools provides exceptional exclusivity for visitors and a perennial water source for the myriad creatures that reside there. Elephants drink from the riverbanks, antelope seek sanctuary in wooded glades and the air is filled with a spectrum of birdlife. Mana Pools is also home to a healthy population of African wild dogs – a rare and often sought-after sight only found in a handful of countries.

With so much life thriving in the park, it is little wonder that its predators are also in abundance, and lion prides grow to significant numbers. Water is the lifeblood of the park, but also a magnet for visitors. Waterborne activities, including canoeing and boat excursions, allow one to carve a silent passage through the grasslands to observe nature undisturbed. The magnetic draw of hydration also allows for stunning views of lion, couched shoulder to shoulder at smaller ponds and pools, often with cubs in tow.

An unwritten parley can exist between predator and prey, each aware of the other’s rung on the food chain, but foregoing instinct for the absolute necessity of hydration. At rare times, lion can be seen sharing a drink with zebra or antelope, each with a cautious eye on the other for any momentary or spontaneous falter in this fragile armistice.  

Timbavati, South Africa

With numerous destinations in which to see lion, the challenge may lie, not in finding them, but in choosing a location.

Timbavati has no such quandary. In close proximity to Kruger National Park and its satellite reserves, travelers will often have had their fill of Africa’s big cats. But Timbavati holds a secret: its lions are white. Translating as ‘the place where something sacred came down to Earth from the Heavens’, Timbavati’s very name honors its unique residents, a genetic anomaly turning their coats from the familiar taupe to pale tan, cream or even snow white.

Jonathan Ridley Zu3 Bijvuk8 Unsplash

Spanning 53,000 hectares (131,000 acres) of unspoiled natural wilderness, Timbavati is also a superb Big 5 destination, also possessing comparatively substantial numbers of wild dogs, cheetah, elephant, giraffe, and an assortment of antelope species.

South Luangwa, Zambia

Featured in documentaries by the BBC and other international filmmakers, Zambia’s South Luangwa is highly renowned for its lion population. Low vegetation, riverine forests and wide riverbed plains afford visitors accessible and numerous viewing opportunities, several prides now familiar with the presence of game vehicles.

Several areas also provide excellent nocturnal viewing, night drives also benefitting from a terrain that lends itself equally to abundant wildlife and superior visibility. Africa’s prides are often known, named and documented by each region’s camps and lodges. This is exacerbated in South Luangwa, with every individual recognized, and the family dynamics and genealogy conveyed to guests.

While this is wonderfully interesting it also brings a certain richness to lion viewing. You gain a heightened appreciation for the pride’s dynamics, and feel a sense of connection through the familiarity with their interconnections. Though rare, it is also possible to observe snoozing lion when on a walking safari through South Luangwa. For obvious reasons, this will be at a greater distance than on a game drive, but can often be more impressive than seeing them closer from the steel security of a four-wheel drive.

Etosha, Namibia

The lion of Namibia have evolved as a desert-adapted sub species, better able to manage the warm, arid conditions. Prides tend to be of smaller numbers and it is not uncommon to see solitary males prowling the sands.

Located in the country’s north, Etosha National Park is home to a healthy population of approximately 700 lion. Despite being one of Africa’s largest national parks, covering some 8,600 square miles ( 22,270 km2), its lion are relatively easy to locate, drawn to the few permanent water sources found in Etosha.

What makes this particularly magical is that several of the waterholes located close to camps are floodlit, providing a spectacular opportunity to see the predators congregating and drinking by night. Even moreso than South Luangwa, Etosha’s vegetation is incredibly sparse, making sightings far easier than locations with dense foliage, and, as such, provides an exemplary vista for witnessing hunts.

Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

With only 400 lions in the entire nation, and less than half of these residing in the park, Queen Elizabeth may seem a rather unusual addition to this list. However, as with Timbavati, it is not its number of big cats that make the national park special, but their peculiarity.

Seeing leopard in the treetops is not unusual wherever they dwell, but tree-climbing lion are a distinct rarity. Queen Elizabeth National Park’s lion population is one of the very few to regularly spend a great deal of time resting in the broad limbs of mighty sycamore fig or acacia trees. For leopard, tree climbing is a functional act for ambush hunting, finding safety from their larger maned peers or securing a kill from the hungry mouths of hyena.

While observation of the surrounding grasslands and finding a cool breeze through the heat of the day are part of the reason, some hypothesize that Uganda’s lion also make their arboreal ascent to avoid tsetse flies and other pests found closer to ground level. With a less favorable strength-to-weight ratio than leopard, the true purpose of this laborious endeavor remains, at least partially, a mystery and one only exhibited by a handful of prides here and in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara.

Ruaha, Tanzania

With the Serengeti and Ngorongoro gaining much of Tanzania’s safari-going attention, Ruaha is wonderfully under-frequented, allowing for intimate game viewing with very few other visitors. 

Located at the heart of Tanzania, its impressive size – some 7,800 square miles (20,225 km²) – has not diluted its lion population. Accounting for 10 percent of the world’s lions, it is also one of the densest distributions of the big cats anywhere in Africa.

The Most Beautiful Lion Of The Masai Mara

The park’s varied topography creates a diversity of flora and fauna, adding to its appeal, and this minimally-frequented region provides spectacular game viewing of all kinds. Large prides wander the park, languishing in the shade through the day and becoming active during dawn and dusk. For those searching for lion in substantial numbers, Ruaha will provide a fascinating opportunity shared with few others.

Okavango Delta, Botswana

A watery wilderness may seem the least likely location in which to find cats of any find, but Botswana’s Okavango Delta is a thriving lion habitat.

Drawn by the abundance of prey, more than a thousand lion dwell in the long grasses and riverine forests that surround the perennial estuaries. As the waters rise and banks burst, the grasslands flood and lion are forced to enter the shallower water to hunt and traverse their territories.

This distinctly un-catlike behavior instigates some stunning scenes, lion leaping through the wetlands, throwing spray into the sky in failed effort of keeping their paws dry.

Despite their adversity to these aquatic realms, they have proficiently adapted to tolerate the water and seem perfectly at ease as they stalk prey, nurse their cubs and even navigate deeper channels.

Though producing a proliferation of food, this environment comes with its challenges. Lush vegetation encourages buffalo and antelope to increase in size, and pursuit through water requires more energy and power. To compensate, the lion found in the Okavango Delta grow about 15 percent larger than those elsewhere in Africa.

Lion are possibly Africa’s most sought-after, impressive and majestic of inhabitants. The majority of safaris will afford you the opportunity to observe these kings of the cat world in the wild, but our collection of favored destinations will all but assure it, each location with its own idiosyncrasies. Even the most seasoned safari goer who may have witnessed lion countless times will be transfixed by large prides, white lions and big cats scaling trees or hurtling through chest-deep waters.

Whatever your creature of choice, we can handcraft a bespoke itinerary that specifically takes your preferences into account, offering the very best opportunity of achieving your objective.