Top 5 reserves to see lions in Africa

Seeing a lion in the wild is often the highlight of any safari, with these majestic beasts having garnered a reputation around the world as the king of the savannah and among the most feared of Africa's predators. Watching a lioness tenderly feed her cubs or following a pride of lions as they stealthily stalk their prey is guaranteed to get the adrenalin pumping, with the final "kill" not for the faint-hearted.

But with lion populations declining significantly in recent years due to habitat destruction, so too are the chances of seeing them in the wild. Lions in West and Central Africa are particularly at risk due to demands from population growth and poor conservation efforts, while those in East Africa are still hanging on thanks to designated wildlife reserves, private concessions and dedicated conservation research projects. Safari tourism has proven an integral part of conservation efforts, providing essential resources and economic incentives to protect lions and their sub-species. So be sure that your African safari will make a difference.

While there's no guarantees you'll spot lions on safari, visiting one of East Africa's lion hotspots during the dry season will certainly increase the likelihood of coming face-to-face with these majestic beasts. Perhaps you want to create a lion-focused itinerary that will heighten your chances of being able to tick this encounter off your "bucket list", or enrich your safari adventure with a diverse range of wildlife experiences. We've got both covered in this guide, with the ideal national parks and reserves to pair with Africa's best lion spotting destinations.

Lioness running with topi kill in her jaws, Masai Mara National Reserve
Masai Mara is usually the most accessible and most budget-friendly reserve to catch a glimpse of a lion, but if visiting during the peak season it also has the potential to be the most crowded.

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Providing the setting for the BBC series "Big Cat Diaries", the Masai Mara is home to one of Africa's highest concentrations of lions, with estimates at just over 400. Its acacia-dotted savannah hugs the southwest border of Kenya and is undisputedly one of the best places to spot these predators in the wild.

The reserve also provides the backdrop for one of the world's most impressive wildlife spectacles -the Great Wildebeest Migration- which reaches the Masai Mara around June and extends until October (when the herds return to the Serengeti). Millions of wildebeest and zebras traverse the crocodile-filled Mara River being pursued by opportunistic predators such as lions, which can result in some thrilling kills for those who are in the right place at the right time.

But even if you miss the migration, the Masai Mara offers a good chance of spotting lions, with the openness of the vegetation making it easy to see them as they laze in the grassy savannah. It's also renowned for its sightings of lions in prides who, at their most active, can be seen scheming with one another to tactically corner prey.

In addition to its quintessential African savannah scenery and spellbinding sunsets, the Masai Mara is relatively easy to access from Nairobi. It boasts exceptional lodges in the heart of all the action, with accommodation options to suit all budgets. Jeep safaris tend to head out during the early morning and late afternoon when the wildlife is at its most active, with highly-trained guides and open-sided vehicles that are ideal for wildlife photography.

The main drawback of the Masai Mara National Reserve is the crowds, particularly during the Great Wildebeest Migration, and those wanting a more exclusive safari experience might want to opt for one of the adjacent private conservancies. Consider basing yourself in one of the camps at Mara North or the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, both of which are considered big cat country and are supporting sustainable community development with the Masai as your guides.

The Masai Mara is also easy to include on a circuit safari, including visits to the flamingo-filled Rift Valley lakes of Nakuru, Naivasha and Bogoria where Rothschild's giraffe and both white and black rhinos can be spotted. Or jump across the border into Tanzania to continue your lion spotting adventures in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park.

Want to see lions stalking wildebeests during the Great Migration? Check out this Masai Mara trip.

Lion pride resting on tree branches, Serengeti National Park
Those who want to experience the Serengeti in-depth can opt for a multi-day safari, or if you just want a taste of it you can combine it with other highlights of Tanzania's Northern Circuit.

Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Home to around 3,000 lions, the Serengeti offers almost guaranteed lion sightings, which is why it was chosen nearly half a century ago for what is now Africa's oldest lion research study - the Serengeti Lion Project. With gently undulating savannah interspersed with rocky kopjes, the open landscape is ideal for spotting prides of sleeping lions as they bide their time waiting for prey or climbing the acacia trees to hang along the trunks.

The Serengeti is also treated to the natural spectacle that is the Great Wildebeest Migration, as the herds return from the Masai Mara to the short-grass plains of Tanzania in November or December. With around 1.7 million wildebeest traversing the plains, along with thousands of zebras, eland and Thompson's gazelle, the allure for predators such as cheetahs, leopards, hyenas and lions can't be understated.

The possibilities of seeing a kill are heightened during January, February and March when the wildebeest are calving and their offspring provide easy targets for opportunistic cats. In addition to creeping amidst the long grasses and stalking behind trees, lions in the Serengeti have been known to use safari vehicles to hide while hunting down their prey, with visitors safely protected inside.

Like the Masai Mara, the Serengeti is well-developed for travellers on all budgets, with a wide selection of camps and lodges where you can get back to basics or indulge in all the modern luxuries. If you're following the migration, you can opt to stay in mobile tented camps that move with the action, meaning you don't have to go hunting for wildlife each day as it's right outside your door.

Most Serengeti safari jeeps feature pop-up tops that make for easy binocular viewing and photography, with well-maintained roads traversing the park. Guides are in constant communication with one another, so although the Serengeti can get busy, you'll benefit from having multiple guides looking out for predators and radioing through to let others know.

With the Ngorongoro Crater right on its doorstep, the Serengeti is also an ideal destination for wildlife enthusiasts wanting to experience some of Tanzania's other highlights. Teeming with hippos, black rhinos and zebras, this immense crater is a wildlife wonderland, with bird-filled lakes following the rains and within a stone's throw of the archaeological site at Oldupai Gorge where early human fossils have been uncovered. Continue to the forests of Lake Manyara National Park to spot giraffe, flamingos and uniquely behaved lions that can often be seen climbing up the trunks of trees.

If you're looking to go lion spotting in the Serengeti, have a look at this trip.

Male lion standing on water, Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta offers the experience of tracking lions in a completely different way by sailing across the marshy canals of the Okavango, the only inland river delta in the world.

Okavango Delta, Botswana

Dubbed the "Predator capital of Africa", the Okavango Delta is a majestic landscape of seasonal wetlands and islands that boasts one of the densest lion populations on the continent. Its UNESCO-listed wilderness and reflective waters are a wildlife paradise, with traditional mokoro canoes slowly plying the reed-lined canals to access remote island lodges.

The Okavango Delta's unique environment has resulted in distinct lion behaviour and hunting techniques, with onlookers treated to some incredible spectacles. Okavango's prides of lions have adapted to swimming in the deep water channels when the delta floods during the wet season (June to October), enabling them to corner their non-swimming prey.

The Duba Plains Reserve is considered one of the best places in the Okavango Delta for seeing lions as they hunt herds of buffalo that become stranded on islands. The result is some exhilarating battles between the two beasts that can't be experienced elsewhere, with the Duba lions among the largest and most powerful specimens in Africa. National Geographic explorers Dereck and Beverly Joubert have based years of research here studying this unique behaviour and how buffalos have responded by merging into mega-herds and preying on isolated lion cubs.

Also of note is the Selinda Spillway that links the Okavango Delta to the Linyanti Swamps and a popular place for hungry lions to feed on unsuspecting hippos. With only 18 guests allowed on the reserve at any one time, it's one of the world's most exclusive concessions for spotting not only lions, but also elephants, cheetahs and wild dogs.

The Okavango Delta transforms with the seasons, meaning you might be venturing out on early morning and late afternoon 4x4 jeep safaris or wildlife spotting from the water in expedition boats and mokoro canoes. Those with an adventurous spirit can get up close and personal during a walking safari before ending the day with sundowners beside one of the delta's hippo pools.

Accommodation in the delta is just as diverse as the safari experiences, with luxury lodges in the heart of all the action and temporary camps for the budget conscious. While some lodges require a private air charter into the delta, taking to the skies on a scenic flight is highly recommended for everyone, offering a bird's eye view of this watery wonderland as herds of wildlife traverse the landscape below.

A visit to the Okavango Delta can easily be combined with an exploration of Chobe National Park, which is renowned for its large herds of elephants and Cape buffalo, as well as sightings of lions and hippos. Then jump across the border into Zimbabwe to experience the mighty roar of Victoria Falls while bungee jumping, white water rafting or on a scenic helicopter flight above.

Lion cub resting on tree trunk, South Luangwa National Park
South Luangwa offers some of Africa's most exclusive lodges and the chance of encountering lions on walking safaris with experienced guides and rangers, creating a more private and intimate experience.

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

A pioneer in walking safaris, South Luangwa is the place to come if you want to get up close to wildlife on foot, without the rumble of jeep engines or vehicle frames blocking your view. It's also renowned for its large prides of lions who traverse the little-visited southern part of the South Luangwa Valley, with a lack of crowds only adding to the appeal.

While you might think that a walking safari to spot lions sounds dangerous, guides are highly trained to ensure you maintain a safe distance at all times. Being on foot places you as an equal with the lion, which is the making of thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime encounters and the chance of having a pride of lions all to yourself.

The park sprawls across a diverse terrain that includes dense mopane forests and wide-open savannah that's punctuated by baobab trees. In addition to lions, South Luangwa is famed for the high concentration of animals that congregate around the Luangwa River and its oxbow lagoons. Expect to see large numbers of hippos, crocodiles, Thornicroft's giraffe and herds of elephant, as well as vervet monkeys and baboons. It's also been nicknamed the "Valley of the Leopard", with these highly elusive cats often spotted lounging in the sausage trees. The animals are easiest to spot amidst South Luangwa's dry bushveld in the winter (July to mid-November), but its woodland transforms a lush green during the wet (mid-November to May) when more than 400 bird species flock to the park.

While not as developed as the Masai Mara or the Serengeti, South Luangwa offers a superb choice of luxury accommodation, much of which is clustered along the banks of the Luangwa River. Witness elephants lumbering through the grounds of these exclusive lodges and wildlife playing right outside your door in an experience that few visitors have the privilege of encountering.

If you want to continue the walking safari experience, you can combine your visit to South Luangwa with a stay in one of the remote lodges in North Luangwa, which offers sightings of endemic Cookson's wildebeest, sable antelope and blue monkeys. Alternatively, enrich your African journey travelling across the border into neighbouring Malawi, where you can go snorkelling, kayaking or water skiing from one of the luxury lodges overlooking the sandy beaches of Lake Malawi.

Want an exclusive lion encounter in South Luangwa? Have a look at this trip.

Lion family, Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is without doubt the reserve that offers most flexibility and choice, as well as the possibility of combining it with some of the most fascinating cities in Africa.

Kruger National Park, South Africa

Kruger National Park needs no introduction as South Africa's most renowned national park and home of the "Big Five" (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape Buffalo), a term dubbed for Africa's most difficult to hunt game species. Sprawling across almost 20,000 square metres of bush-studded plains, tropical forests and rugged mountains, it stands as one of the largest game reserves in Africa.

But it's the Sabi Sands Game Reserve on the southwestern edge that has established a reputation as a lion hotspot and home to the notorious Mapogo band of lion brothers that have been responsible for countless kills in their quest for dominance. With no fences between it and Kruger National Park, Sabi Sands is a privately-owned reserve, which means that safari vehicles aren't restricted to the roads. This allows drivers to follow lions as they stalk their prey through the bush or go about their daily business while getting guests up close to all the action along the river beds.

As one of Africa's premier safari destinations, there's an excellent choice of lodges and camps for all budgets in the Greater Kruger National Park, coupled with highly-experienced rangers who offer an immersive wildlife viewing experience. Sabi Sands Game Reserve is easily accessible from Johannesburg, with lion sightings generally peaking during the dry season from May to September when vegetation is sparser.

While the accessibility of the Greater Kruger National Park does mean large influxes of visitors at peak times, the traversing rights of each lodge is carefully restricted and only a certain number of vehicles are allowed per sighting, helping to reduce the swarming of jeeps if a pride of lions in spotted. Guided walking safaris are also conducted in Sabi Sands, offering a completely different perspective on Kruger's wildlife-filled savannah.

For those wanting to glimpse one of the rarest lions in Africa, head north from Sabi Sands to the Timbavati Game Reserve, which is home to highly endangered white lions. A rare genetic mutation has resulted in their snow white fur, but having been hunted almost to extinction, sightings are rare and for the lucky few!