Best Places to See Lions in Africa
By Philip Briggs | Updated March 25, 2023
The most eagerly sought of the Big Five by first-time safarigoers, the lion is Africa’s largest and most charismatic carnivore. It differs from most other cats insofar as it tends to be strictly terrestrial, though there are a few locations where the local population routinely climbs trees. The least secretive and most sociable of the world’s 40-odd felid species, lions typically living in cooperative prides of up to 20 individuals. These are dominated by a single male or coalition of brothers, who regularly engage in lethal battles against potential rivals.
The leonine lifestyle punctuates long periods of inactivity with bursts of action. Lions spend most of their time sleeping, for which reason daytime sightings often comprise a few individuals dozing in the shade, briefly raising their heads reluctantly when interrupted, then resuming their slumbers. Hunting and other activity mostly takes place at night, when prides often move long distances, and vocalize loudly, emitting a loud anguished grunting that can be heard from miles away. The most rewarding lion sightings generally take place in the first or last hour of daylight, which is when you’re most likely to witness them feeding, greeting, playing or drinking.
In Biblical times, lions occurred in suitable habits throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, and the global population stood at more than one million. Today, with the exception of one isolated population in India, lions are confined to sub-Saharan Africa, where numbers have declined from around 400,000 individuals in the 1950s to fewer than 30,000 today. Furthermore, habitat loss and persecution outside of protected areas has led to increased population fragmentation and inbreeding. Despite this, where the IUCN Red List accords the likes of black rhino, elephant, chimpanzee and African wild dog an Endangered status, lions are still listed as merely Vulnerable.
Fortunately, there are still many safari destinations in Africa where lions remain reasonably common and conspicuous. Here we highlight our favorite places for lion viewing:
Serengeti National Park
I would rank the Serengeti as Africa’s top destination for lions. This vast tract of Tanzanian savannah probably hosts the largest lion population of any individual conservation area, and it’s very rare to go a full game drive without a sighting. The Seronera Valley, which lies at the heart of the park’s most popular game drive circuit, is one of the few places where I’ve regularly seen lions resting up in the trees. The northern Serengeti is renowned for its large prides, which often contain 20 or more individuals and specialize in bringing down buffalos.
We almost chose: Southern Tanzania
It’s been claimed, credibly, that Tanzania is now home to almost half the global population of wild lions. So while the Serengeti takes some beating, southerly national parks such as Nyerere, Ruaha and Mikumi are also excellent places to look for lions.
South Africa’s premier safari destination comprises the Kruger National Park as well as numerous private reserves with which it shares unfenced borders. Extending across almost 9,000 square miles, this vast tract of Big Five country is second only to the Serengeti as a lion stronghold, with a population estimated at around 2,000 individuals. The national park itself is an excellent and affordable destination for self-drive safaris, and while you need to work for your sightings here, you can be reasonably sure of seeing lions over the course of a few days. Bordering Kruger, prestigious private reserves such as MalaMala, Sabi Sand and Klaserie offer guided luxury safaris where close-up encounters with lions and the rest of the Big Five are as good as certain.
We almost chose: South Africa’s malaria-free reserves
South Africa is unique among the continent’s top safari countries in that, Kruger aside, most of its parks and reserves are malaria-free, making it particularly attractive to families with young children. Malaria-free Big Five destinations that offer good lion viewing include Madikwe, Pilanesberg, Phinda, Kwandwe and Shamwari Game Reserves. Also worthy of mention are the black-maned lions that inhabit the vast desert dunescapes of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and the presence of the ‘white lion’ variant in Sanbona Game Reserve.
Masai Mara National Reserve
A northern extension of Tanzania’s Serengeti ecosystem, Kenya’s Masai Mara is relatively small compared to its southern neighbor, but equally good when it comes to lions. I’ve often enjoyed three different lion encounters in the course of one game drive, and as with the northern Serengeti, it’s not unusual to see prides of 20-plus individuals devouring a freshly-killed buffalo. For wildlife documentary fans, Masai Mara was the setting for all the leonine action in the series Big Cat Diaries and more recently Dynasties. The celebrated Marsh Pride, which featured in both these programs, is still often seen in the vicinity of Musaria Marsh.
We almost chose: Western Uganda
Uganda is associated more with gorilla and chimpanzee tracking than with conventional Big Five safaris. But we’ve had excellent lion sightings here over the years, most notably in Queen Elizabeth National Park (whose Ishasha sector is famed for its tree-climbing lions) and along the Delta Circuit in Murchison Falls National Park.
Zambia is one of Africa’s wildest safari destinations. Its most important lion stronghold is the Luangwa Valley, where South Luangwa and North Luangwa national parks are venues for superb guided walking safaris. The immense Kafue National Park is known for its dark-maned males, which are most likely to be seen on the northerly Busanga Floodplain. Lower Zambezi National Park is the only place where I’ve ever canoed past lions, a thrilling but unnerving experience, as several sets of guileless amber eyes followed my trajectory across a narrow strip of ankle-deep water.
We almost chose: Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is almost as rewarding as Zambia when it comes to lions. Hwange, an immense national park bordering Botswana, is conveniently visited in tandem with Victoria Falls. A more adventurous option is Mana Pools, a Big Five wilderness destination where you can canoe on the Zambezi and walk unrestricted.
Comprising the immense Chobe National Park, the even larger Okavango Delta, and a number of private concessions, the wilds of northern Botswana protect one of Africa’s vastest unfenced ecosystems. All the Big Five are present, and the region almost certainly supports Africa’s largest extant elephant population. Lions are well-represented, too. They are regularly seen on the popular afternoon boat trips and morning game drives that follow the Chobe River west from the busy gateway town of Kasane. Lions also thrive in the Okavango Delta and Moremi Game Reserve, where some prides have adopted an unusually amphibious lifestyle. If you’ve ever seen footage of lions hunting elephants, it was almost certainly taken in the Savuti region of Chobe National Park, where this behavior is quite common.
We almost chose: Etosha National Park
Namibia’s flagship safari destination, the 8,600-square-mile Etosha National Park is home to a healthy population of lions, which are often seen in the vicinity of waterholes on the edge of the vast Etosha Pan.