In general, the big game species are spread throughout the wildlife areas of East and Southern Africa. Nonetheless, it is important to consider your priorities. For example, leopards may be widespread, but they can be seen reliably, in daylight, in only a small number of specific locations. Most game parks contain elephants, but really large elephant herds exist in fewer and fewer places. And landscape is also an important consideration: The bushveld of northern South Africa provides astonishing game viewing, but it is tangled and dense and bears little resemblance to the majestic open plains of Kenya and Tanzania. Here is an overview of the animals you may see on safari and the areas in which to best view them.
Although Africa’s lion population is estimated to have declined from 100,000 to 20,000 in the past two decades, the continent’s top predators are still present in most major game areas. Lions are frequently encountered in large prides and spend most of the day asleep in the shade of trees, making no effort to conceal themselves or to run away. Nowadays, most upscale safari lodges and camps make use of radios, so once a pride has been located, the guide will notify his colleagues. This means that in places such as South Africa’s Sabi Sand reserve, finding a lion is virtually guaranteed. Seeing lions hunt or kill is extremely unusual, however, and some people, accustomed to TV wildlife specials that took years to film, go home bitterly disappointed. The most spectacular of Africa’s lions are the black-maned males in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. The Serengeti also has huge prides, up to 25 strong, whereas in more arid areas, lions tend to form much smaller groups or to live solitary existences. (To find out more about the plight of Africa’s lions, click here.)
Arguably the most beautiful and alluring of all the cats — and my own personal favorite — leopards are often very elusive. Largely nocturnal, they are shy and hide in thick vegetation during the day. In a few places, however, leopards have become habituated to humans and are routinely seen in daylight. This is especially the case in Sabi Sand, where both Londolozi and Singita are famous for their frequent sightings. In Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, night drives are permitted, and it is possible to find leopards with a spotlight. (Sanctuary Puku Ridge Camp is the Harper-recommended property nearby.) However, my own best leopard sightings have been at Mombo, where one morning I saw five individuals, including a female, killing an impala in broad daylight on the camp’s airstrip!
Perhaps fewer than 10,000 cheetahs remain in the wild, with the largest single population (3,500) being in Namibia. There, visitors to Etosha National Park have a good chance of a sighting, though cheetahs tend to be elusive if there are lions in the vicinity. (The Harper-recommended property close to Etosha is Little Ongava camp.) However, nothing quite compares with finding cheetahs on the immense grass plains of East Africa, in Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve or Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
Adult rhinos have no natural predator other than mankind, but we have decimated the population, hunting them for their horn, encroaching on their land and reducing their habitat. While five species of rhino exist around the world, only two are found in Africa: the southern white rhino and the endangered black rhino. Since 1960, the black rhino population has declined by 97.6% to just over 5,000. The white rhino, however, has fared much better, increasing in number from 50 at the beginning of the 20th century to 20,000 now due to conservation efforts. Still, poaching has never ceased, and countries with strong poaching laws have to use military tactics to protect the species. I recommend numerous lodges and camps operated by the outstanding company Wilderness Safaris. The Wilderness Wildlife Trust, its associated conservation organization, has purchased a number of rhino and has been successful in reestablishing their numbers throughout Botswana. A particularly good place to see rhino, both black and white, is Singita Pamushana Lodge in Zimbabwe, which is where they have been taking them from to release them in Botswana.
Despite a recent increase in ivory poaching, elephants are still present in most major African game areas. The greatest concentrations are found in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, where about 50,000 elephant congregate on the banks of the Chobe River during the May-October dry season. During the rainy months, the elephants spread out, with some large herds migrating for hundreds of miles. An unusually dense elephant population can also be found in Addo National Park in the Western Cape province of South Africa. (There, Gorah Elephant Camp is a Harper-recommended property.)
Those who have seen Gorillas in the Mist and have the means to travel to Africa are naturally lured to the remote highlands of Rwanda and Uganda to see these great mammals in their natural habitat. Fewer than 790 mountain gorillas exist today, threatened as they are by encroaching civilization, deforestation, poaching and disease. Of those, about 375 reside in Volcanoes National Park, on the Rwandan side of the Virunga Mountains, and 330 make their home in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in neighboring Uganda. In both countries it is possible to witness these magnificent creatures in close quarters, resting, playing and socializing in the rain forests without a care as they are observed by humans, sometimes as close as 20 feet away. The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, in Rwanda, is a comfortable base camp for taking in this exhilarating experience, as are Cloud Mountain Gorilla Lodge and Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, both in Uganda.
Botswana’s Okavango Delta is home to nearly 450 recorded bird species. Another birder’s paradise is the Lower Zambezi Valley — the river forms the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe — where the profusion of large and colorful species must be seen to be believed. There are few more spectacular sights in nature than a flock of crimson carmine bee-eaters, several thousand strong, congregating above their nest site on the sandy banks of the Zambezi.