The animals that make Africa a wildlife lover’s destination of choice hang out in specific regions of specific parks.
Here’s where to find Africa’s “Big Five” — lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino — as well as five other amazing creatures.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa, is considered to be the best place in the world to see leopard.
Africa’s most elusive big cat is also its most successful; leopards exist in many parts of Africa and they can adapt to most habitats (some Kenyan cities, for example, have a problem with urban leopards).
Yet these master-predators are notoriously hard to see in the wild. The 62,000-hectare Sabi Sands reserve has one of the highest densities of leopards in Africa.
Also try: Botswana’s Tuli Enclave and Kenya’s Samburu National Park are also prime territory for sightings of Africa’s most enchanting feline, with large leopard populations that are habituated to vehicles.
The rhino is the most endangered of Africa’s legendary Big Five and it continues to face a threat from poachers.
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, on Laikipia Plateau, is a highland wilderness stretching right across the northern flank of Mount Kenya. This is arguably the best place in the world to see these majestic beasts, with a total of about 40 (both black and white variations).
Black rhino are more often solitary and harder to spot in dense bush but large “crashes” (as groups of rhino are, perhaps aptly, known) of white rhino can be seen contentedly — and safely — grazing all over this fenced reserve.
Also try: Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania is a great place to see rhino and is known for the unusual spectacle of grazing black rhino (habitually browsing animals).
Uganda’s Kidepo Valley National Park could be the best place to see the sort of immense herds of buffalo that would more easily be associated with the North American prairies before “the West was won.”
Enormous herds of African buffalo are frequently seen on these picturesque plains — the rangers tell of herds of up to 4,000 that gather south of the areas that the tsetse fly make uninhabitable. The buff population is so healthy in fact that Kidepo’s large prides of lion feed primarily on these formidable bovines.
Also try: Massive herds of buffalo also gather on Tanzania’s Serengeti during the migration season, when it is not unusual to see more than 1,000 at a time.
Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve shares a border with the mighty Serengeti National Park (Tanzania) and is perfect Big Cat Country.
The Mara has been called the prime wildlife real estate on the planet and this is primarily because of its great population of lion. Bila Shaka Luggah, in the center of the reserve, is prime hunting ground for camera-wielding lion hunters, but don’t be shy of heading north into the hinterlands of the so-called Mara Triangle for less crowded sightings.
Also try: Botswana’s Savuti region is also known for its large prides and Tanzania’s Lake Manyara is famous for its tree-climbing lions.
The Okavango Panhandle, in northern Botswana, is the point where the mighty Okavango River starts to fan out into the world’s largest inland delta.
The river here is only about 50 meters wide but croc-researchers estimate you would have only a 50/50 chance of surviving the swim to the other side without an attack from one of these six-meter reptiles.
Shakawe village and fishing camp is the main access point for exploring the Panhandle.
Also try: Mara River (Kenya) during the migration is famous for the spectacle of huge crocodiles ambushing wildebeest and zebra.
Bwindi National Park is more commonly known, with good reason, as The Impenetrable Forest. This “island in the sky,” with its densely forested slopes rising out of the savannah of southern Uganda, is home to half the world’s population of mountain gorillas.
The 330 apes here are well protected and viewing is restricted so you are almost assured of spending time with one of several troops of gorillas that inhabit these forests. Sitting in the presence of a mighty silverback and his family is one of the greatest experiences the natural world has to offer.
Also try: Parc Nacional des Volcans in Rwanda is part of a trans-frontier park that surrounds the peaks of Virunga Volcanoes (which also slope into Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo). There are five families of gorillas on the Rwandan side.
Cheetahs can accelerate to 100 kph in three seconds, and have a top speed of 120 kph, making them the world’s fastest land animal. Watching one hurtle across the salt flats of Etosha National Park in Namibia is an unforgettably thrilling sight.
In this vast park (22,268 square kilometers) you learn, like the animals themselves, to stick close to the permanent waterholes. There are more than 40 waterholes around Etosha Pan and some of the best cheetah sightings are at Salvadora spring, which attracts large herds of springbok, their favorite prey.
Also try: The wide-open savannah of Tanzania’s Serengeti is also known as prime cheetah country.
Mozambique’s Maputo Elephant Sanctuary is part of an international “Peace Park” that stretches into South Africa and Swaziland.
This region boasts the biggest tuskers in Southern Africa — a couple of the huge males are equipped with mammoth tusks that almost graze the ground when they walk. Despite its proximity to the Mozambique capital, Maputo Elephant Sanctuary is one of the least visited and most pristine of the great parks of the south.
Also try: Botswana’s Chobe National Park is also renowned for vast herds of elephants, numbering into the hundreds, and the region’s famously aggressive tuskers guarantee an exciting safari.
Also known as “painted wolves” these endangered canines are considered by safari connoisseurs to be Africa’s premier predator sighting.
There are now only about 3,000 wild dogs and although sightings cannot be guaranteed anywhere, Nxai Pans and Makgadikgadi Pans (north of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert) offer great opportunities.
Tight-knit sociable packs of 10 to 15 animals coordinate very successfully in the hunt to achieve an amazing kill-rate of about 85 percent, meaning that if you can find wild dogs hunting you have a great chance of witnessing a kill.
Also try: Kenya’s Laikipia and Samburu National Reserve are wildlife corridors that are regularly used by large packs of wild dogs and sightings are increasingly common here.
Since National Geographic photographed the surfing hippos of Gabon’s Loango National Park, they’ve become one of Central Africa’s best-known icons.
While the large pods of ocean-going hippos are a prime draw card, this is also a unique place for watching elephants on the beach and for spotting whales and dolphins further offshore.
Also try: For an intimate view of hippo social life, head to Mzima Springs (Kenya) where a water-level hide allows you a unique view of synchronized swimming on a gargantuan scale.