Best places to watch lions and other big cats in the African wilderness on safari

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. Here are the best places to see lions in East Africa.

There’s something undeniably thrilling about the prospect of seeing a lion in the African wilderness. These majestic creatures, symbols of raw power and untamed beauty, have held a place in human imagination for centuries. With their muscular bodies (second in size only to tigers among the big cats) and those earth-shaking roars, lions command respect in the animal kingdom.

But there’s more to lions than their fearsome reputation. Watching a pride interact – the playful cubs, the affectionate bonds, the powerful males surveying their territory – offers a glimpse into the complex and captivating social world of African lions. Sadly, this very survival is under threat. Habitat loss due to human development and encroachment, along with conflicts with livestock herders, are pushing lion populations to the brink (according to a Researchgate paper). The opportunity to watch these big cats in their natural habitat is dwindling with each passing year. You should jump on any chance to go on Africa safari and see lions sprawling the savannah.

The best time to spot these mighty predators on an African safari is during their downtime. Lions, like many big cats, are masters of relaxation, spending much of their day resting. During a safari, you might catch a magnificent maned lion sprawled out in the golden afternoon light, a picture of utter contentment. This juxtaposition of fierce predator and gentle giant is part of what makes observing lions on the African savannah so fascinating.

Where do lions live in Africa?

While African lions once roamed much of the continent (and beyond!), their range is now largely limited to sub-Saharan Africa. They thrive in grasslands, savannas, and open woodlands – anywhere they can find ample prey and some cover to stalk it. Sadly, their preference for these habitats often puts them in conflict with human development.

Elsewhere in the world, a small, isolated population of Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica), a subspecies of the African lion, clings to survival in India’s Gir Forest. This is a stark reminder of just how fragile the future of these magnificent cats truly is.

A lioness shows affection to the dominant male - best places to see lions in East Africa
A lioness shows affection to the dominant male

How do lions live? The social structure of a lion family.

Lions are remarkably social creatures, living in close-knit groups called prides. Unlike many other big cats, they thrive on this sense of community. A lion pride is a family unit, typically comprising anywhere from 2 to 40 lions – related females, their cubs, and a few dominant males who lead the group.

Female lions form the core of the pride. They usually stay with their birth pride throughout their lives, providing family stability and raising the next generation. Young males, however, face a different fate. Once they reach maturity, around the age of 3 or 4, the dominant males force them to leave. These newly independent males might roam as nomads for a time, form a coalition with their brothers, or even challenge other males for control of an existing pride.

The dominant male lion, recognizable by his impressive mane, is the fierce defender of the pride’s territory. He marks its boundaries with urine, roars to deter challengers, and will fight tooth and nail to protect his family from rivals. A male lion’s reign as leader of the pride is often short-lived – usually a mere 2-3 years before being ousted by a younger, stronger contender.

While the males focus on protection, the lionesses are the skilled hunters of the group. Working in teams, they strategically stalk and take down prey ranging from zebras and wildebeest to even larger animals like buffalo. After a successful hunt, the hierarchy comes into play – the dominant male eats his fill first, followed by the females and finally the cubs. Young lions don’t start participating in hunts until they’re about a year old.

But pride life isn’t all about hunting and hierarchy. Lions spend much of their time relaxing in the sun, grooming one another, and engaging in playful tussles (especially the cubs!). Mothers are incredibly devoted to their young, sometimes hiding their newborn cubs away from the rest of the pride for a few weeks to ensure their safety. Lionesses usually give birth every two years, ensuring the pride continues to grow and thrive.

Best places in East Africa for lion safaris

The thrill of observing a lion in its natural habitat is an experience that stays with you forever. But as human settlements encroach on wild spaces, the opportunity to encounter these majestic cats grows increasingly rare. Thankfully, dedicated conservation efforts have created protected havens where lions can thrive, offering safari-goers incredible chances to watch them in their element.

Among these protected areas, Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve stand out as true lion strongholds. However, other remarkable destinations, like Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, hold their own unique allure and promise an equally unforgettable Africa lions safari.

Here are our top five national parks in East Africa where you can see lions on safari:

Young lions watching their parents on a hunt in Serengeti - best places to see lions in East Africa
Young lions watching their parents on a hunt in Serengeti

1. Serengeti National Park 

With an estimated 3,000 lions roaming its vast plains, Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park is a legendary safari destination, steeped in history and teeming with wildlife. This iconic park is synonymous with the Great Migration, a breathtaking spectacle where millions of wildebeest and zebra thunder across the landscape. This abundance of prey is what sustains the Serengeti’s thriving predator populations, making for unforgettable lion sightings.

When the rains arrive in November, the Serengeti transforms into a lush haven for the returning herds. Wildebeest and zebra scatter across the plains, hungrily feeding on the fresh grasses. This bounty lasts through January, February, and March, with wildebeest calves adding to the feast in a concentrated birthing season around February.

This is prime time for a Serengeti safari. Witness the drama of the African wilderness unfold as powerful lion prides seize the opportunity to hunt vulnerable newborns. The cycle of life and death plays out in breathtaking fashion. If you dream of seeing lions in action, the Serengeti will not disappoint.

These safari packages would suite you perfectly:

Masai Mara Kenya Safari
Dark-maned lion on the Mara plains preying on the wildebeests

2. Masai Mara National Reserve

Home to an estimated 600 lions, Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve is a must-visit for any predator enthusiast. This iconic reserve, forming a seamless ecosystem with Tanzania’s Serengeti, boasts the largest lion population in Africa. Here, lion sightings are guaranteed. Prides stalk and ambush their prey amidst the rolling grasslands a few feet from your safari truck, nonchalant of you watching them.

The excitement reaches its peak during the legendary Great Migration. Imagine the spectacle of thousands of wildebeest and zebra desperately attempting to cross the Mara River, only to be met by lurking crocodiles and hungry predators lying in wait. Lions, alongside other fearsome hunters like leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs, seize this chaotic opportunity. If you yearn to watch lions in their natural hunting element, the Masai Mara delivers an unforgettable experience.

Try these safaris:

lions in Laikipia Plateau, Kenya - one of the best places to see lions in Africa

3. Laikipia Plateau

Home to an estimated 230 lions, Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau offers a safari experience with a difference. Stretching from the slopes of Mount Kenya, this diverse landscape of cattle ranches, tribal lands, and wildlife conservancies allows visitors to explore on foot for truly immersive wildlife viewing.

Laikipia is a beacon of hope for lion conservation. Organizations like Lion Landscapes and Mugie Conservancy lead vital research and protection efforts. Visitors have the unique opportunity to learn about anti-poaching initiatives and even track radio-collared lions. This interactive approach fosters a deeper understanding of how humans and lions can coexist.

Best of all, Laikipia’s lion population is consistent throughout the year, making it an excellent destination to watch lions in Africa regardless of the season. With dedicated guides and researchers, your Laikipia safari promises unforgettable lion encounters while supporting the future of these majestic felines.

A lioness lounging in the tree in Ishasha Sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park - best places to watch lions in Africa
A lioness lounging in the tree in Ishasha Sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park

4. Queen Elizabeth National Park

While you can see lions throughout East Africa, Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park offers a truly extraordinary encounter – the tree-climbing lions of the Ishasha Sector. Prides of lions drape across the branches of a giant fig tree, a sight you won’t find anywhere else in the world!

Why do they climb? Nobody knows for sure! Some say it’s to escape the heat; others think it gives them a better view to spot prey, or maybe they’re just trying to avoid those pesky bugs. Whatever the reason, observing these unique lions adds an unforgettable dimension to your Africa safari experience.

For the ultimate tree-climbing lion adventure in Uganda, stay at the Ishasha Wilderness Camp. Combine luxurious glamping with incredible wildlife viewing away from the crowds. And if you’re truly adventurous, Uganda offers an even more amazing African safari combination – lion sightings in Queen Elizabeth National Park followed by gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Bwindi and Masai Mara Safari Adventure

Bwindi and Masai Mara Safari Adventure

10 Days

detailed safari
Gorillas and Serengeti Safari, Uganda & Tanzania

Gorillas and Serengeti Safari, Uganda & Tanzania

10 Days

detailed safari

Planning your African lion safari

Every major savannah park in East Africa promises the chance to encounter lions, each with its own distinct flavor. While popular parks like the Masai Mara offer guaranteed sightings, their fame can sometimes make for a more crowded experience. If you desire a more intimate connection with these majestic beasts, consider exploring destinations like Laikipia or Ngorongoro Crater, known for their laid-back atmosphere and exceptional lion-watching opportunities. (How much does an African safari cost?)

But for a truly extraordinary and private lion-tracking experience, set your sights on Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. Their expert trackers will guide you to the best spots for potential lion sightings. Imagine the thrill of following their tracks, anticipating the moment you finally spot these powerful predators in their natural habitat!

Ready to start planning your dream safari? Talk to our safari consultants! We’ll help you craft an unforgettable itinerary filled with lion encounters and other incredible adventures. Perhaps you’ll even choose to combine your lion safari with gorilla trekking in Uganda‘s lush mountain jungles or stay in some of the most luxurious safari lodges in Africa.

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Best places to watch lions and other big cats in the African wilderness on safari
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