Lions are one of Africa's iconic species, and yet they are under threat from habitat loss, conflict with humans, and many local factors. Seeing these social cats in the wild is becoming an endangered privilege, so on the first World Lion Day we've come up with a list of the best destinations and specialist guides for observing the King of Beasts.
What to know
Everyone going on an African safari expects to see lions, but there are fewer than you might think. According to a recent Duke University study, the continent's population has dropped more than two thirds in the past 30 years to perhaps less than 32,000 lions, and the species has lost 75 percent of its former range and gone extinct in 26 countries. Most of the continent's lions survive in just six countries, in the national parks and reserves of Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. According to wildlife crime fighter and Condé Nast Traveler Environmental Award winner Ofir Drori, who has helped capture and convict lion-skin traders in West Africa, the are perhaps only 13 wild lions left in all of Cameroon.
The camps and guides below specialize in lion observation while also offering great general game viewing. Be aware that you may have very different types of lion sightings depending on the terrain and your safari type (walking, game drives, canoeing, etc). Pride behavior shifts from territory to territory depending on the group's size, seasonal game movement, rivalries between male lions, and pressure from other predators such as hyenas. As a general rule for safari planning, check the blog of safari lodges you are considering for reports of lion pride activity. Also see if off-road driving and night drives are possible to increase your chances of following lions hunting. (During daylight hours you are more likely to see the big cats sleeping as they digest prey killed the previous evening.) And always ask your travel specialist to request that a senior guide escort your game drives and walks, since an experienced lodge staffer will know the environs and the ranging animal populations far better than a new arrival.
Where to go
Tanzania has the continent's largest lion population. According to Mark Nolting, one of Condé Nast Traveler's recommended safari specialists, a private vehicle and top guide are key, "and the overriding variable is that the guide must have unlimited mileage and no restrictions from the safari company he is working with as to how far he can drive in a day. This allows him to follow his nose and reports from fellow guides to maximize lion sightings." Nolting's Africa Adventure Company pays private school fees for the kids of guides who consistently deliver great experiences as an extra incentive to put maximum energy and creativity into finding the species that clients hope to see. Recently, a group of Nolting's clients chalked up more than 150 lion sightings, including a huge male that stalked and brought down a hyena.
Within the Serengeti Ecosystem, a mobile tented safari timed to the cycles of the annual wildebeest migration increases the possibility of witnessing lions hunting, especially during the July through October period when lions ambush wildebeest along the banks of the Mara River, or during the January through March wildebeest calving season at the southern end of the Serengeti.
In Kenya's Masai Mara Reserve, all four members of the Governors Camp Collection conduct game drives on the east bank of the Mara River in the vicinity of Musiara Marsh, Rhino Ridge and Paradise Plain—the territories of the Marsh Pride and five other lion families depicted in the long-running BBC TV series Big Cat Diaries. According to host and professional photography guide Jonathan Scott, lions regularly stalk the tree-lined water courses east of the marsh. Scott and his wife, who have been observing the prides for years from their base in the Governors concession, are sometimes available to lead private safaris by arrangement. Also working in the area, often from Rekero Camp, standout guide Jackson Looseyia, one of Jonathan Scott's presenters for the Big Cat DiariesTV series, is regarded as one of the best the Mara and his bush sense has resulted in extraordinary lion sightings for clients, including the makers of Disney's 2011 "African Cats" documentary.
More talented guides work for Great Plains Conservation, a company founded by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, Emmy Award-winning filmmakers who have made many documentaries about lions for National Geographic. GPC is a consortium of four small and superb safari properties in Kenya, with five more in Botswana, and the Joubert's personal passion for and involvement in protecting lions (and elephants and rhinos) helps ensure that guides at all GPC camps and lodges have in depth lion knowledge. In Kenya, Joubert particularly recommends Mara Plains Lodge guides Johnson Ping'ua O Nkukuu (aka "Ping") and Kevin Parmalal Saiyalel. (For more on Mara Plains and other GPC properties check out the upcoming World on Sale event, for which safari specialist Cherri Briggs is organizing a trip.)
Within Botswana's Okavango Delta, GPC's Duba Plains has exclusive access to a unique lion habitat: a permanent island where a large buffalo herd, trapped by surrounding water, engages in an epic battle with resident lions who have become buffalo hunting specialists; following the buffalo herd during a three-day stay allows many guests to observe a full hunting cycle. "A guide at Duba Plains will know more about lions in a year than any guide in the world. It's lion boot camp," says Dereck Joubert. Guests particularly praise guide James Pisetu for his awareness of Duba's ecosystem. Lion prides living in proximity often behave very differently because of subtle changes from territory to territory, so it's worth dividing your Okavango safari between several locations. At Selinda Explorer's Camp, Kane Motswana is a San Bushman who applies his traditional tracking skills to a smart, unique almost spiritual style to guiding around a permanent channel linking the Okavango Delta with the Linyanti and Kwando water systems, where lions are sometimes seen preying on hippos.
If you're brave enough for an "up close and personal" lion trek, Nick Murray, owner of Vundu Camp in Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park has been conducting walking safaris for the past 23 years, enabling "guests to approach wild lions more closely on foot than anywhere I know in Africa," says Mark Nolting. The park lion population stands at about 120, divided between four prides that hang out near the Zambezi river, and four more in the remote Chitake Springs sector. Depending on the situation (lions may be more aggressive while they are feeding or tending young cubs), guests approach on foot to about 50 yards then crouch down and approach in tight formation to about 20 yards. "We'll sit down and quietly observe, sometimes getting even closer by scooting forward together on our backsides," says Murray. "Before setting out we go over safety procedures, such as staying in a group behind me, and never turning your back or running from a lion." The walking safaris operate from May until the start of the November rainy season. Prime time is August through September, before dry season temperatures become too hot, and to catch both lions and the wild dog denning season. Murray says the local lions are generalists as hunters but have become especially adept at taking down impala which live in the thousands around Mana Pools.
In Namibia, lions have adapted to desert conditions. Nine prides have overlapping territories in the Skeleton Coast National Park and the bordering Kunene region, and community lands between the Hoanub and Kunene Rivers. Occasionally lions wander east to scavenge sea lions and beached whales on Namibia's wild Atlantic coast; more commonly they hunt gemsbok (oryx) and smaller desert antelope. Every safari is a crap shoot, and there are no guarantees of seeing such behavior, but the family-run Skeleton Coast Safaris has operated in the park since 1977 using small planes and 4x4s to cover the territory.
Open from June to October, the remote Lion Camp within Zambia's South Luangwa National Park is so named for frequent lion sightings, which managers tweet at @lioncamp. Nine thatch and canvas tents are linked by raised wooden platforms; and general game viewing is excellent, according to travel specialist Cherri Briggs, founder of Explore Africa and who has a home in Zambia. The new U.S. Honorary Consul to Zambia, Briggs is also the sibling of Dr. Michael Briggs, a zoologist and cofounder of the African Predator Conservation Research Organization. As a result, Explore Africa clients have inside access to several lion research projects in southern Africa.
Descended from animals that belonged to Emperor Haile Selassie, the 20 Abyssinian lions in the Addis Ababa Zoo belong to a genetically distinct subspecies that may still survive in the wild in Ethiopia's Babille Elephant Sanctuary. The males have exceptionally long dark manes that grow around the neck, shoulders and underbelly and look similar to the Barbary lion that formerly ranged across North Africa and the extinct Cape lion of South Africa.
If you're traveling to South Africa, be wary of patronizing lion cub petting zoos. Such operations may claim to breed lions for education and "conservation," but the reality is that when cubs grow too large to be handled safely, they are often sold to companies that raise domestically bred African game for the canned hunting industry. In canned hunting, hand-reared animals with little fear of humans are released into a fenced area for hunters to track down and shoot in a short period of time. A law against the canned hunting of predators was repealed in 2010, and more than 160 ranches hold a captive population of about 3,500 lions—larger than South Africa's wild lion population. Hunters pay up to $38,000 for a captive-bred male lion trophy, and farmers are also supplying growing demand from Asia for lion bones for traditional medicine.
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