Lions are at the top of the wish-list for most first-time safari-goers. They are the most iconic member of the Big Five and play an important ecological role as keystone predators. Lions typically favour areas with plenty of open grassland and are found in most of the major national parks and game reserves of Southern and East Africa. Because they are diurnal and naturally sociable, they are easier to spot than the elusive leopard and many of Africa's smaller, nocturnal felines. However, they do most of their hunting after dark and if you see them during the day, you're most likely to catch them napping.
Despite their wide distribution, lions are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The African population has declined by 43% since the early 1990s, due in large part to habitat loss and hunting. To see these kings and queens of the bush remains a real privilege. You can increase your chances of an encounter by visiting safari destinations known for their healthy lion populations. We've listed five of the best below.
The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem includes the Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southern Kenya. The area is home to around 4,000 lions, including well-known prides like those featured on legendary documentary Big Cat Diaries. Try to time your trip with the annual Great Migration, when vast herds of wildebeest and zebra move throughout the ecosystem in search of good grazing. Lions follow in their wake, making the most of the abundant prey. Head to the southern Serengeti from December to March to see lions in action during calving season; and to the Mara River in July and August to watch them ambushing the wildebeest as they attempt to cross the river. In Kenya, private conservancies offer a more exclusive safari experience.
Located in central Tanzania, Ruaha National Park is the country's largest game reserve, but also one of its least visited - giving you the chance to escape the crowds of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. It's also an exceptional choice for lion sightings, with 40% of Tanzania's lions and 10% of the entire African population living within its borders. The Ruaha lions are known for forming large prides with up to 30 individuals and have relatively small territories, making them easy to spot. To feed these large families, lionesses work together to bring down Cape buffalo. A battle between two of Africa's most dangerous animals is something you will never forget - although it's not for the faint-hearted. With only a few remote camps, Ruaha offers a taste of true wilderness and is a great option for East Africa veterans.
South Africa's largest national park, the Kruger, lies on the country's northeast border with Mozambique and has a population of around 1,800 lions. Generally, the southern section of the park is considered best for lion sightings because it has a greater concentration of prey animals. If you're self-driving, the tar road between Skukuza and Satara has earned itself a reputation for frequent lion encounters. Some of the best places to see lions in the Kruger area, however, are in the unfenced private reserves that border the national park. These include Sabi Sands Game Reserve, Manyeleti Game Reserve and Timbavati Private Game Reserve. The latter is famous for its exceptionally rare white lions, although don't bet on seeing them - they have been pushed to the brink of extinction by trophy hunters.
Botswana's Okavango Delta boasts one of the largest lion populations in the world with over 2,300 lions thought to live in the greater Okavango-Hwange area. These lions have adapted to the Delta's aquatic ecosystem and can often be seen swimming between islands in search of prey during the June to October flood. They are known for their size and often target bigger prey, including buffalo and elephant. Traditionally the dry season - confusingly the same as the flood season - is the best time to see lions because prey is restricted to higher ground and predators are therefore less spread out. However, the rainy months (December to March) coincide with calving season and are a good time for witnessing a kill. The surrounding areas of Chobe, Savuti and Linyati are also known for lion sightings.
Located in east Zambia, South Luangwa National Park also has large prides of up to 30 lions. The southern region is particularly productive, since incredible concentrations of game mean that lions don't have to go far to find prey and have smaller territories, making them easier to locate. Interestingly, some of the South Luangwa prides have developed an unusual taste for hippos and if you're very lucky, you may be able to witness this phenomenon for yourself. South Luangwa is also special because it allows night drives, unlike most other national parks. This gives you the chance to look for lions when they're at their most active. Make sure to sign up for at least one walking safari, too. The park is famous for them and the thrill of seeing Africa's apex predator on foot is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.