To put it simply, if a lion sighting doesn't get your blood pumping, you probably shouldn't be on safari. Whether you've never had a chance to visit Africa, or if you're approaching your hundredth safari, a glimpse of 'the king of the jungle' is always special.
For those planning safaris in 2022 and beyond, and particularly those who are seeking out spectacular lion viewing, the options can sometimes feel overwhelming. It is certainly true that most large protected areas in Africa are home to at least a handful of lions, and this can sometimes leave visitors with a misleading impression when it comes to lion populations on the continent. These big cats are, in fact, deeply threatened across the continent as a result of habitat loss, prey depletion and human-wildlife conflict. In total, and estimates do vary, there may be as few as 15,000 lions left in Africa (the Indian population excluded), with perhaps as few as 3,000 in West and Central Africa.
We at Pictus Safaris passionately believe that ecotourism is a powerful tool to help secure the future of many of Africa's most threatened species, including lions. Whilst this is evident in the larger protected areas in Eastern and Southern Africa, many smaller protected areas hardly ever feature of tourist itineraries, meaning that management authorities struggle to finance the protection of keystone species. For those planning safaris in years to come, we highly recommend spending your hard-earned money in areas that are 'off-the-beaten-path' - not only will you have the experience of a lifetime, but your visit will go so much further towards protecting the wildlife we all love.
With this in mind, here are our 'Top Ten' unexpected destinations for lion sightings in Africa. Let us know in the comments if you have visited any of these areas, or are planning to in the future!
10. Zakouma National Park, Chad
Lion Population: c.130
Lion Density: 1 lion per 23.1 sq/km
Overview: It's now an open secret that some of the very best game-viewing in all of African can be found in Zakouma National Park. Boasting vast herds of tiang, spectacular gatherings of birdlife, all of the 'Big Five' and some of the best night drives in the world, there are increasingly few reasons for any serious safari-goer not to visit. In fact, it is possible for guests to spot leopard, lion, cheetah, serval, caracal, wild cat, honey badger, aardvark, striped hyena and pale fox during their stay - and all this in Central Africa!
The lion viewing in Zakouma is excellent, particularly in the areas around Rigueik Pan and Tinga Camp. In fact, during our last visit, we had lions mating in camp - we didn't sleep a wink! Due to the excellent management of African Parks, which has restored Zakouma to much of its former glory, lions can now be found throughout the park. Given the number of cubs we have seen in recent years, we wouldn't be surprised if the population is growing.
How to Get There: Pictus Safaris visits Zakouma on our 'The Greatest Show on Earth' small-group safari in March 2022, available for just £2,995 for 9 nights.
9. Pendjari National Park, Benin
Lion Population: c.100
Lion Density: 1 lion per 27.6 sq/km
Overview: Another park that has seen a reversal of fortunes under the stewardship of African Parks, Pendjari is arguably the finest wilderness area in West Africa. Part of the trans-boundary WAP Complex, contiguous with Arli National Park in Burkina Faso and Parc du W in Niger, this ecosystem is perhaps most famous for hosting the last remaining cheetah in the region. However, the lion viewing can also be spectacular. These West African lions often most closely resemble the lions of Gir in India, rather than those elsewhere in Africa, with less fulsome manes and smaller bodies. Any chance to glimpse members of such a rare population is a real treat indeed.
Sadly, Burkina Faso and Niger have seen deepening instability in recent years, and some of this has bled across to Benin. As such, the productive game-viewing routes in the far north of the park are no longer accessible to visitors. The south of the park, including the excellent Mare Bali, remain open for tourism, and guests stand a chance of spotting lion, bush elephant, cheetah and serval during their stay.
How to Get There: Pictus Safaris offer a trail-blazing 11-night 'The Jewel of West Africa' small-group safari, taking in Pendjari as well as Gnanhouizounme and Kikele Sacred Forest, in December 2022, available from just £2,795 per person.
8. Batéké Plateau National Park, Gabon
Lion Population: 1
Lion Density: 1 lion per 2,034 sq/km
Overview: At first glance, Gabon isn't prime habitat for lions. So it must have been a huge surprise to Philipp Henschel and the rest of the Panthera team when they camera-trapped a single male lion in the south-east corner of the country in 2015. The last previous evidence of lions here was collected 11 years previously in 2004, and they were widely assumed to have been locally extirpated. It has since been determined that this lion hadn't come into the area from any other known populations, suggesting that a tiny population of lions still exist in the border area between Gabon and the Congo.
Visitors to Gabon shouldn't expect to see lions, for now at least, but there is a huge array of other wildlife in the country, making it one of the most exciting safari destinations on the continent today.