Safari expert Stephen Mills reveals the best locations and shares his top tips for ensuring an unforgettable lion-watching experience.
Lions are a bit like Marilyn Monroe. They are utterly gorgeous but spend most of their time in bed. For 19 or 20 hours a day, they simply lounge around in the shade, twitching their tails and yawning. In fact, it can be difficult to see lions doing anything much, and many people are disappointed with their first lion encounter.
So how can you increase your chances of seeing some action?
Below I have provided tips on five very different ways to see wild lions in their element, and share my golden rules for lion watching.
One final piece of advice: if you are on an organised safari, make sure to befriend your driver and explain what you hope to see. Otherwise he or she may assume that you’re a ‘typical’ tourist and are happy to park up beside comatose cats and snap away with your camera.
HOW TO TRACK LIONS ON FOOT
Where to go: South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
Learning from an expert how to make sense of the minute ‘signatures’ left by animals – be it a footprint, scat, flattened patch of grass or bent twig – is a rewarding alternative to the classic vehicle-based safari experience.
Many lodges now provide walking safaris and some, especially those in South Africa and Namibia, also offer practical ‘ranger’ courses.
During the day, lions are extremely unlikely to attack you – buffalo are more dangerous – but even so, there is an added thrill from tracking these predators on foot.
Keep your eyes peeled and don’t rely on your tracker to see everything for you. This isn’t just because you’ll learn more that way; most people working in the field have suddenly stumbled on hidden lions at some stage.
HOW TO SEE LIONS AT NIGHT
Where to go: Reserves around Kruger, South Africa
Most lion kills occur after dark, especially when there is no moon, so this is a great time to observe interesting behaviour. Night drives are forbidden in most national parks, but not in private reserves – the ones fringing Kruger (which has a big lion population) are a good bet.
Look out for the glow of your torch reflected in the cats’ eyes – then switch it off and use a night-vision scope to watch the action unfold.
HOW TO SEE ASIATIC LIONS
Where to go: Gir Forest National Park, India
Yes, there are still lions in Asia. About 400 members of the endangered subspecies Panthera leo persica – the last of their kind – cling to survival in the Gir Forest of western Gujarat.
I have had some of my loveliest lion experiences in this dry forest, when filming BBC series such as Land of the Tiger (1997). The area is also home to numerous leopards and colourful birds.
Unfortunately, though you can join guided tours of Gir National Park, the tourist facilities here are not yet in the same league as at India’s big tiger reserves.
HOW TO WATCH LIONS HUNT
Where to go: Etosha National Park, Namibia; Masai Mara, Kenya; Serengeti, Tanzania
First things first: to witness the drama of a lion hunt, you need to keep an eye out for the telltale signs. Prides often grow agitated beforehand – a lioness may get up, nuzzle a neighbour and walk away, stopping after 30m or so. Another does the same, and then suddenly the whole pride is on the move.
Follow – but no closer than 500m – and, if the terrain allows, scan a long way ahead of the lions as their target could be 2km away.
Always watch the behaviour of prey species – if you spot an animal acting strangely, there may be lions nearby, waiting for the right moment to strike.
But the surefire way to maximise your chances of seeing a kill is to go where prey gathers in big numbers: the Masai Mara from June to October when the wildebeest are there, the southern Serengeti in February when they drop their calves, or the waterholes of Etosha in the dry season.
HOW TO JOIN A RESEARCH TEAM
Several lion research projects accept paying volunteers, usually for periods of two to six weeks. The ‘work’ on offer varies from short, day-long stints monitoring the activity of prides or assisting vets, to carrying out opinion polls among local people.
Check exactly what is involved in advance – visit the websites of reputable conservation and research organisations that welcome volunteers, and browse the adverts in BBC Wildlife for ideas.
Whatever you end up doing, it will give you an insight into conservation and help these beleaguered cats at the same time.
TOP 10 LION DESTINATIONS
- Masai Mara, Kenya
The Mara – home of the Marsh Pride – hosts one of the highest densities of lions in Africa. The wide variety of good lodges with expert guides makes this a great choice for an all-round safari experience.
- Serengeti, Tanzania
The home of the world’s longest-running lion research project offers plenty of opportunities for driving off-road, so you can be alone with the cats.
- Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Some people find Ngorongoro ‘touristy’, but I’ve seen plenty of fantastic lion behaviour here.
- Selous, Tanzania
Africa’s largest reserve, Selous covers 55,000km2 yet is seldom visited. Good for tracking lions on foot.
- South Luangwa, Zambia
Norman Carr pioneered walking safaris here in the 1970s. Night drives can be amazing.
- Kafue, Zambia
One of Africa’s largest protected areas, covering 22,500km2. The buffalo-hunting lions of the Busanga Plain are a highlight.
- Mana Pools & Matusadona, Zimbabwe
Both locations are within striking distance of Victoria Falls and offer excellent walking and canoe safaris.
- Okavango Delta, Botswana
The location of much interesting lion research. Linyanti and Savuti marshes in the west have a track record for providing good lion sightings.
- Etosha, Namibia
Many of the lodges and campsites here have floodlit waterholes where you can see lions after dark. In the dry season, Etosha is one of the places to see lion hunts.
- Kruger, South Africa
Supports a big lion population, but thick bush can make them hard to see. Excellent for self-drive safaris; night drives are possible in adjacent private parks.
LION-WATCHING TIPS There are five golden rules for unforgettable lion encounters
- Get out in the field in the early morning and late afternoon as these are the hours of daylight when lions are most active. Don’t let anything distract you from this goal.
- Make a quick assessment as soon as you find a group of lions. Are they alert? Is there a kill? Are there cubs? In other words: do the lions look as if they might do something?
- Stay in one position and ask your driver to turn off the ignition for good measure. Only move the vehicle if you really have to. Many people miss the best action or spook animals by trying to find a better angle.
- Keep your distance. Lions are far more likely to hunt or interact with each other if they feel relaxed and have plenty of space. If you want to take close-up photos, do so during the pride’s ‘lazy’ moments.
- Be patient. It can sometimes take an hour or two for an interesting (and photogenic) situation to develop.
To read our feature on the lions of the Marsh Pride by Jonathan Scott, click here.
For practical advice when on a lion safari, and what to do in the unlikely circumstance of an attack, click here.
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