Lions are at the top of the list of most south-after animals to watch in the wild on Africa safaris. Historically, we have admired African lions as symbols of tenacity, courage and power. These iconic beasts have powerful bodies—in the cat family, they’re second in size only to tigers—and roars that can reverberate five miles away.
Because of their ability to live in hierarchical groups like humans, lions are among Africa’s most dignified animals. However, the chance to see these spectacular beasts is decreasing yearly.
While they spend up to 20 hours of the day napping, lions are the laziest wild cats. On Africa safari game drives, we see large maned lions in shades shamelessly lying on their backs with their feet dangling up like a fully fed infant. They usually use this lazy time to be affectionate towards pride members, rubbing heads, grooming and purring, a sight that leaves even the most unaffectionate tourists enamoured.
Experts say that African lions once wandered across Africa, parts of Asia and Europe but now only occupy some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, sticking to the grasslands, scrub, and open woodlands where they can hunt easy prey. Lions flourish in most African habitats apart from tropical rainforests and deserts.
You might have heard of Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica). These are subspecies of the African lion, and only one tiny population survives in India’s Gir Forest.
Lions live in groups (like chimpanzees) called prides, although you may find some solitary lions huffing it solo on the African plains. A lion pride is a family unit comprising anywhere from 2 to 40 lions, with females and their young under the leadership of a single male (or several brothers). Lionesses in a pride are related, and young lionesses typically stay with the pride as they age.
Young males stay until they mature to about 3-4, and the dominant male throws them out. They will then form their own pride, take over one, or form a coalition of brothers to take over large pride.
The patriarch defends the pride’s territory, marking his territory with urine, coughing menacing roars, and fiercely fending off other challenging males trespassing on his turf. A male lion can take over another pride at about 7-10 years old and hold it for about 2-3 years before being ousted by another male or coalition of males.
Female lions take the lead on hunting excursions, family care, and raising the young. They often work in coherent teams to take down prey like antelopes, zebras, buffalo, and other large game on the open grasslands. Adult females rear a litter of cubs every two years. They will leave the pride for a couple of weeks to give birth secretly and only return to the pride when they think the cubs are safe.
After the kill, the head of the family gets to eat first, his wives squabble after he is done, and the young ones last, following the pecking order.
Young lions don’t join the hunt until they are about a year old. Sometimes the older ones will hunt on their own whenever possible and occasionally steal kills from other predators like cheetahs, leopards, hyenas or wild dogs.
Hunting is usually at sundown, late at night or dawn when most prey is impaired by darkness. Afternoons are generally for busking in the sun, social grooming, inspecting their territory (for males), fighting enemies, and catching up on family love.
The main challenge facing lions is the loss of habitat to permanent human settlements and farms. However, there are still some protected places to see lions up close in the wilderness. Here are our top five national parks in East Africa to see lions in their natural environment.
About 3000 lions roam the Serengeti plains in northwestern Tanzania. Serengeti National Park is the most famous African safari destination going way back with the European explorers, including big shots like Churchill, Lugard, Speke, and Roosevelt.
The world’s most spectacular wildlife show, the great migration of over two million wildebeests and zebras, revolves around this wilderness crossing between the Mara and back. The migration is the primary reason predators have flourished in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.
When the rains begin on the Serengeti plains around late November, the gnus return from their eight months journey around the Mara triangle—dispersed across these plains, wildebeest and zebra feed on the fresh, nutritious grasses to fatten their bodies for the subsequent migration. They stay here through January, February, and March, with the wildebeest calves born in a short window around February.
It is the best time for safari game drives in the Serengeti to witness the gruesomeness and fragility of the African wilderness. Huge prides of lions and the predator bunch take this advantage to pounce on the helpless kids—balancing life and death on the plains.
About 600 lions are roaring in Masai Mara National Reserve, a safari park in southwestern Kenya contingent with Tanzania’s Serengeti, which we discussed earlier. The two reserves form the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem holding the highest number of lions on the African continent.
Here, every traveller witnesses these beasts at their highest hunting game—the place literally hosts a stampede of safari trucks around any lion sighting, especially at the Mara river crossing during the Annual Great Migration.
During the action-packed period of the Mara River crossing, the intuition-guided wildebeest and zebras are trying to cross the river hundreds at a time. Massive Nile crocodiles sneak in the shallow waters, while other predator bunch steak out at the banks to catch an easy meal. Lions will definitely be there flanked by other big cats, hyenas, and wild dogs.
Laikipia is said to host about 230 lions. The plateau stretches from the rugged slopes of Mount Kenya in central Kenya, extending to the northwest into a patchwork of fenced cattle ranches, tribal land and community-run wildlife conservancies. The extensively open wilderness offers safari experiences that break away from the traditional and get guests out of the safari truck to watch the wild game on foot.
Laikipia is at the forefront of research into protecting various animals, including the glorious lions. Centres such as Lion Landscapes and Mugie Conservancy allow visitors to understand how lion prides are protected against poaching 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.
Lion populations of Laikipia are consistent year-round; it is the best place to see lions in any season, with guides and researchers helping to conserve them.
Although you can see lions in many of East Africa’s national parks lazing away in the heat of the day, there is no better way to witness them than on safari in Ishasha Sector.
In Ishasha Sector, south of Queen Elizabeth National Park, lions take the sighting experience up a notch by sleeping on the branches of enormous sycamore fig trees.
Uganda’s lion prides in Ishasha rest in the branches to escape the heat, gain clear views of potential meals, or avoid insect bites. No one can honestly tell why they do, but we enjoy watching the tree-climbing lions’ unique antics.
To watch the tree-climbing lions and appreciate their unique behaviour, stay at Ishasha Wilderness Camp, where you can combine an authentic safari glamping experience with superb game viewing without the crowds. Additionally, Uganda is great for watching the lions and gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, protecting the biggest population of mountain gorillas.
Honestly, all major savannah parks in East Africa offer great laidback lion tracking experiences. Although some parks buzz with safari trucks like Masai Mara, others like Laikipia and Ngorongoro offer a more laid-back lion-watching experience.
However, for a more private place to watch lions on safari with expert lion trackers, spare some agreeable time for an exciting lion-tracking safari experience and head to Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Talk to our consultants to help you plan a safari trip to see lions. You may add jaw-dropping adventures like gorilla trekking in Uganda’s mountain jungles, staying in some of the most exotic places on safari.