The Best Places to See Cheetahs in Africa
By Philip Briggs | Updated March 09, 2021
The world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah is a charismatic spotted cat that can run at an explosive 75 miles per hour in short bursts. An atypical cat, it has a greyhound-like build, non-retractable claws, a preference for hunting diurnally, and a bizarre high-pitched call that sounds more like a twittering bird then a roaring lion or mewing tabby. As large carnivores go, cheetahs come across as oddly fragile and highly strung, and it seems remarkable that they thrive in the same neighborhood as the thuggish lions and spotted hyenas that routinely chase them off their kills.
Cheetahs are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Where they once ranged throughout much of the Middle East and Asia (their name derives from the Hindi chita, meaning ‘spotted’), they are now all but confined to Africa, where the total population has declined from 100,000+ in 1900 to perhaps 7-8,000 today. Despite this, there are still several safari destinations where cheetahs are regularly seen, and the pioneering translocation work undertaken by the South Africa’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project – discussed more fully below – hopefully points the way forward for protecting the genetic diversity of this vulnerable species elsewhere in Africa.
The sparsely vegetated and thinly inhabited badlands of Namibia form an ideal hunting ground for cheetah. So much so that this one country is now thought to harbor almost half the global population. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to spot them here. The cheetahs of Namibia are scattered across vast tracts of ranchland and tend to be very skittish due to occasional persecution by farmers. That said, they are reasonably common and quite likely to be seen in Etosha National Park, the country’s flagship safari destination, as well as in neighboring private reserves. And if you miss out on cheetahs in Etosha, then it’s well worth dropping into the private Okonjima Nature Reserve, the 75-square-mile home of the Africat Foundation, a non-profit organization that specializes in the rehabilitation of cheetahs and other large predators.
Possibly the best country in Africa to see cheetahs, South Africa hosts the second largest population of this endangered cat, and it’s the only place in the world where numbers are steadily increasing. The country’s most established cheetah stronghold is the Kruger National Park, which supports a population of 200-300 individuals, much of it concentrated in the open grassland around Satara rest camp, though sightings are also quite common in bordering private reserves such as Sabi Sand. Cheetahs also occur naturally and are often encountered in the red dunes of the remote Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which extends into Botswana and also borders Namibia.
An interesting and heartening development in South Africa is the recent establishment of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project. This groundbreaking project overseas a population of almost 400 cheetahs across 60 scattered reserves that would be too small to host a viable breeding population in isolation, but can do so collectively through the regular relocation of individuals from different family lines to ensures a high level of genetic diversity and integrity. Three private reserves in this program that are particularly recommended are &Beyond Phinda (top notch cheetah sightings in the context of an excellent luxury Big Five safari), Samara (for the opportunity to walk with cheetahs) and Zimanga (for dedicated photographers seeking a perfect cheetah portrait). Also worth singling out is Mountain Zebra National Park, which runs daily guided cheetah tracking excursions, first locating the animals by VHF radio, then following them at a distance on foot.
As with Namibia, the open Kalahari scrub of Botswana supports a large but widely dispersed cheetah population. This means that while cheetahs might be seen in almost any safari destination within Botswana, including the popular Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park, there are no individual reserves or sites that stand out as highly reliable.
Although East Africa supports only half the number of cheetahs found in Southern Africa, it contains plenty of hotspots for these endangered animals. Foremost among these in Tanzania is the legendary Serengeti National Park, the centerpiece of a larger migratory system that probably supports more than 1,000 cheetahs. You might come across a cheetah almost anywhere in the Serengeti, but densities seem to be particularly high in the far southeast, where it’s not unusual to enjoy several sightings in the course of one day. Possibly as a result of the dense population, coalitions comprising two or three brothers seem to be very common in the Serengeti.
If I were to nominate any one non-private sanctuary in Africa as offering the most reliable cheetah viewing, it would almost certainly be the Masai Mara. This Kenyan extension of the Serengeti ecosystem almost invariably offers great close-up views of cheetah, particularly the central sector that lies between the Talek and Mara rivers. The cheetahs of the Masai Mara seem to be particularly fond of climbing onto termite hills and other elevated vantage points to scan the area for potential prey, as well as dangerous rivals such as lions and hyenas. This is also the one place in Africa where cheetahs regularly climb on safari vehicles or use them as cover when hunting! Cheetahs are less conspicuous elsewhere in Kenya, but quite likely to be seen in Ol Pejeta, Lewa Downs and other private conservancies in Laikipia.
The Brachystegia savanna that covers most of Zambia is too dense to be an ideal arena for the pacey zigzag sprints favored by hunting cheetahs. So while these endangered cats are present in small numbers in popular safari destinations such as South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi, numbers are low and sightings relatively uncommon. One notable exception is the Busanga Floodplain, a 300-square-mile tract of open grassland that forms the game-viewing centerpiece of Kafue National Park during the dry southern winter. Visually reminiscent of the Serengeti, this expansive floodplain seldom disappoints when it comes to cheetah sightings, partly due to the abundance of red lechwe, puku and other suitable prey. A bonus for cat lovers is that Busanga is also a stronghold for Kafue’s trademark black-maned lions.