Best places to see Africa’s big cats
Lion, leopard, and cheetah – the feline trio that comprise Africa’s big cats – offer some of the most exciting wildlife viewing you will find on safari.
Superb predators, they each have their own distinct set of characteristics though, sadly, all share a spot on the endangered list with degradation of habitat and human wildlife conflict threatening their survival, cheetah being the most vulnerable of the three.
They are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Leopard have perhaps the most varied habitat range and can survive in desert and semi-desert regions, savanna grasslands, mountainous environments, and very occasionally urban locations. Lion prefer patrolling grassy plains and open woodlands, while cheetah will range from forest and thick scrub to grassland and semi-desert.
BEST PLACES TO SEE LION
Lion can be seen year-round in many of Africa’s best-known reserves. Large prides can be found in Kenya’s Masai Mara, where camps like Kicheche Bush Camp, Offbeat Mara, Rekero or Mara Nyika are in the heart of lion country. Tanzania’s Serengeti is also prime lion territory and camps like Lamai Serengeti, Serengeti Under Canvas or Namiri Plains all afford great sightings. Given the amount of time they spend traversing their areas, the guides know the lions so well that they’ll probably be able to share their life stories with you!
Moving south, South Africa’s Kruger National Park and surrounding private reserves offer plenty of choice with the likes of Chitwa Chitwa, Ngala Tented Camp and Dulini River Lodge all top lion spots. Head towards the Kalahari and Tswalu Reserve and you will be able to spot magnificent black maned Kalahari lions amid the equally magnificent scenery.
Botswana is another lion strong hold with the area round Duba Plains and Kwara Camp particularly good. Zambia’s South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi National Parks have healthy populations and Robin Pope Safaris’ ‘Carnivore Week’ safari in the South Luangwa offers a wonderful opportunity to spend six days with the Zambian Carnivore Programme team to learn about lion and other large carnivore species.
You’ll find lion throughout Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park where camps like Somalisa and Camp Hwange are excellent. Don’t discount Uganda either, where you might spot some of the tree climbing lions in the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Lion also roam Namibia’s desert landscapes, uniquely adapted to survive in this harsh land. Guests staying Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp may find themselves in conversation with Dr Philip Stander and his team who are currently studying and documenting these rare animals.
BEST PLACES TO SEE LEOPARD
Solitary and shy, leopard are very well camouflaged and amazingly good at hiding. They often lose kills to hyena and lion, which are more powerful and social, so tend to hunt at night, and take their prey up trees if possible. Just seeing a leopard is a thrill and watching one hunt is an amazing privilege as well as a lesson in patience.
Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park is perhaps the place you’re most likely to see a leopard – though this is never guaranteed. The fact you can do both day and night drives here certainly maximises the chances of spotting this elusive cat. Luangwa Safari House, Tena Tena, and Puku Ridge are all great options here.
In South Africa, Phinda Private Reserve – with its incredibly varied habitat – has good leopard and with limited numbers of visitors you have a good chance of enjoying a sighting without the interruption of others. The private reserves of the Sabi Sands, adjacent to the Kruger National Park, are also good with Londolozi and Tanda Tula Field Camp being lovely options here.
Kenya’s Masai Mara should be on the list – many will remember the encounters of the BBC’s Big Cat Diary team following a family of related leopards known as the Jackson Five. Encounter Mara, Offbeat Mara Camp and Naboisho Camp are all super spots. There are leopard in northern Kenya as well, with Laikipia the most likely place for a sighting – Sosian would be perfect here.
Botswana is rightly famous for its wildlife, but there are little pockets where it is quite exceptional. One such is Chief’s Island in the heart of the Okavango Delta. It’s been protected for a long time, is very fertile and supports a plethora of wildlife including leopard. Mombo or Little Mombo are quite superb and my colleague Richard Smith once saw four leopards in a single wildlife drive. Elsewhere in Botswana the Selinda Reserve should get a mention, with Zarafa Camp a good shout for leopard enthusiasts.
BEST PLACES TO SEE CHEETAH
Built for speed with a narrow, lightweight body and long slender limbs cheetah can reach speeds of up to 110kmph. They need plenty of space to make the most of their spectacular acceleration and are found year-round in dry areas of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, the open plains and savannah of the Masai Mara and the Serengeti, and the flat salt pans of Etosha National Park. Cheetah are best seen in the dry season when the grass is short enough to reveal their ground hugging shapes. They’ll often choose a bit of high ground, or even a termite mound, to scan the horizon for prey – stealthily stalking as close as possible before bursting into action.
Real cheetah enthusiasts will enjoy staying at Epako Safari Lodge in Namibia’s central highland region which home to a cheetah rehabiliation sanctuary.
In South Africa, Samara – a wonderfully successful re-wilding project – is also home to a cheetah conservation research team and it’s possible to track these elegant animals on foot here.
Elsewhere, Namiri Plains in the Serengeti is excellent for cheetah, while over the border in the Masai Mara, Kicheche’s three camps are all in cheetah territory, along with Offbeat Ndoto and Richard’s River Camp. In Botswana, cheetah are regularly spotted around Kwara and Splash Camps, as well as Chitabe Camp and Gomoti Plains Camp.
If you want to see a bit more, here’s a fabulous video from our friends at Great Plains Conservation showcasing Africa’s big cats.
We would be delighted to help with planning your a safari holiday to include Africa’s big cats. Our team of experts has travelled widely throughout Africa and the Indian Ocean and can offer expert advice. Do get in touch – chatting to people by phone or email is what we do best. We listen, we explain, we answer all sorts of questions even those you didn’t know to ask, and finally we make suggestions. If this is your first time to Africa or your twenty first, we have a team standing by to help make the planning easy and the journey the best ever. Please get in touch whatever stage you’re at.