Lions are amongst Africa’s most majestic animals. As the only big cat species to live in groups, they’ve always attracted our attention. The chance to see these spectacular beasts is however decreasing year by year.
Globally, it’s estimated that there are between 23,000-39,000 lions living in the wild, mostly in Africa. The main challenge facing lions is the loss of habitat to permanent human settlements and farms, but there are still some protected spots to see them in the wild. Here are our top five places to see wild lions in their natural environment.
Spanning more than 40,000㎢, the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem comprises two of East Africa’s most impressive nature reserves – Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. This expansive area covers forests, rivers, and grasslands that stretch into the horizon.
It also plays host to one of largest movements of animals in the world – The Great Wildebeest Migration. The passing of over a million wildebeest annually through the ecosystem provides a seasonal food source for predators, including lions. For the rest of the year, rich and dense resident wildlife sustains prides in the Masai Mara with established territories, such as the famous Marsh Pride.
Estimated number of lions: 3,600 – 600 in the Masai Mara and 3,000 in the Serengeti National Park
Best time to see lions: It’s possible to see lions in the Mara-Serengeti region all year round.
After the Masai Mara, the Laikipia region of Kenya has the second densest population of lions. Laikipia is made up of a patchwork of conservancies and is at the forefront of research into the protection of various animals, including the majestic lion.
Centres such as Lion Landscapes and Mugie Conservancy allow visitors to gain an insight into how prides are being protected in the area, and even track several lions that wear radio collars. Through engaging and interactive education, travellers to the region can learn how lions and humans can coexist with minimal risk to both.
Estimated number of lions: 230
Best time to see lions: The lion populations of Laikipia are consistent year round, so any season it is possible to find them and spend some time with guides and researchers helping to conserve them.
Situated in Northern Botswana, the Okavango Delta is a labyrinth of glimmering lagoons, winding streams, and verdant islets.
Having travelled over 1,000 km from Angola, the Okavango river comes here to disappear into the sands of Kalahari desert. Before it does though, its waters create a paradise for wildlife – the area teems with an abundance of hippos, impalas, crocodiles, and of course, lions.
Visitors to the Okavango Delta can observe the unusual sight of these big cats wading or swimming through the blue-green water, going between islands. During the dry season (May to September), you might even catch sight of a lion going head-to-head with a crocodile, battling over a carcass.
Estimated number of lions: 2,300
Best time to see lions: Over 200,000 animals migrate to the Okavango Delta between July-September, providing ample hunting opportunities for lions. The average temperature is also the most comfortable in this period, between 20°-30°, and grass cover is at its lowest, allowing you the best visibility of wildlife.
The Gir Forest National Park in the Gujarat region of Western India is the last refuge of the lesser known Asiatic Lion.
Smaller than their African counterparts, the Asiatic Lion roams through the dry scrub forests of the Gir’s 1,412㎢ area, hunting down wild boars, buffaloes, and deer.
Whilst numbers of Asiatic lions remain in the hundreds, they still face multiple threats to their survival. Interference from human activities and infrastructures play a role in this endangered animal’s demise, as does poaching.
Estimated numbers of lions: 523
Best time to see lions: The period from December to March offers the most comfortable climate for observing wildlife in the Gir Forest. Given the scarcity of Asiatic lions, though, visits are tightly controlled by park authorities – make sure to check before going.
Home to all of Africa’s big five, Kruger’s National Park is nestled in the north-eastern part of South Africa.
The best opportunities to spot lions is from the road around the Sabie river basin. It’s not unusual for a pride to bring traffic to a halt as they saunter across, now accustomed to human behaviour (though it is definitely not advised to leave your vehicles).
Alongside an abundance of wildlife, the park is also known for its archaeological sites. Visitors can explore the areas of Thulamela and Masorini, gaining an insight into prehistoric life.
Estimated number of lions: 1,750
Best time to see lions: Lions can be seen all year round, but to increase your chances of an encounter, come in the dry months from May to September. The scrub thins out, giving greater visibility, and the animals congregate around watering holes.
Seeing lions in the wild is a mesmerising experience. Despite on-going threats to global populations, there are still a number of protected national parks where it’s possible to see them in their natural habitat. Wherever you choose to go to see them, be sure to hire an experienced guide that will be able to bring you to the best locations as well as keep you safe.
If you’re currently considering a safari in Africa to see lions in the wild, check out what Governor’s Camp has to offer. With multiple locations within the Masai Mara reserve, our luxurious camps offer a comfortable yet convenient base from which to observe this majestic creature in its natural habitat.
(Photo credits: Will Fortescue)