We have a saying in the safari guide community – if we can’t show our guests a prominent species such as Cheetah or Wild Dog, the quip is that we have left it for next time. Keen folks will take up that offer and come back for more, but generally if they have seen the ‘Big Five’ and aren’t ‘nature people’ by nature, then they will probably feel like they have ‘done it’ and the next vacation is to Cancun or Cambodia, or wherever is fashionable at the time. But, if they happen to miss out on Lion, one of the world’s largest cat, the King of Beasts, then their safari experience is definitely not complete.

On any well-designed itinerary, the chances of missing out are small, but it can and does happen, especially if you only have two days on safari (not a well-planned itinerary) and they happen to coincide with a spell of bad weather. Our big cat safari itinerary ,we run during South Africa’s dry season is designed to maximize the chances for the big cats, and we usually do pretty well in that regard, sometimes exceptionally well. 8 nights, 9 days and plenty of hours out in the field in two of the best venues for authentic wildlife almost guarantee the wild cats, at least when it comes to Lion and Leopard.

On a recent running of one of these tours we did particularly well with Panthera leo, raising the bar with 31 different individuals. Yes, that’s 31 on one day, and not just in one ‘super pride’, but in four different groups. It was the day we moved from Elephant Plains to Nkorho, two different lodges in the northern sector of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa. A group of Lions had been hanging around their Giraffe kill since we arrived at Elephant Plains, and by the morning of departure they were still there, to the obvious frustration of a dozen or so Spotted Hyenas and many more Vultures, which had by now invested a lot of time in waiting for the big cats to give way so that they could have their turn at the carcass.

A big cat safari experience Photo credit: Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris

That made for 7 lions on the books before breakfast. I purposefully said ‘group’ here rather than ‘pride’ as they were actually made up of members of the Nkahuma Pride, the Styx Pride and three unknown young males, all feeding together and again dispelling the idea that Lion prides are permanent associations over time. Then our first afternoon drive at Nkorho started off with the rest of the Nkahuma Pride (7 adult females who had again been joined by a young male from another pride), asleep as usual but thankfully in an open patch of shorter grass.

Big Cat Safari Lawson's BirdingPhoto credit: Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris

Indeed, Lions spend around 18 hours per day at rest, so 8 out of 10 sightings are of sleeping animals… exciting for first timers perhaps but like watching paint dry for seasoned guides! With minimal action out of these 8 Lions we moved on, hoping for some movement after dark. Of course, in the world of safaris, there’s a ‘sundowner’ drink to be had while seeing in the changeover between day and night shifts, and while we were enjoying cold G & T’s an adult male (our first full-maned male) who had paired up with the missing female from the Nkahuma Pride were found, and we downed drinks and responded as quickly as possible, getting good spotlight views of the pair on the move (‘movement’ interrupted by regular rests).

Cat SafariPhoto credit: Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris

From there we headed back towards Nkorho Bush Lodge. It had been a warm day and their camp pan is close to the border with the neighboring Vuyatela Concession and the vastness of the Kruger National Park, where water is scarce, so the chances of seeing something that had come out after dark to drink at the camp pan were good. Less than 500 meters out we bumped into the Nkahuma Pride again, lying in the road but on alert for potential prey and threats, and sure enough, the 14 members of the Torchwood Pride were sprawled out around the water hole, to make it 31 for the day. That’s on top of 8 Wild Dogs and 2 Leopards… If you haven’t been on a safari before the 31 figure may not mean much to you.

Big CatPhoto credit: Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris

I haven’t been through my records but after a decade and a half of guiding, that ranks as one of my better Lion days – when you are several days in to a safari and haven’t yet seen a Lion, as happens occasionally, even one Lion is a big pressure-reliever for the guide. And in global terms it’s not insignificant either. The species is listed as ‘Vulnerable’ and decreasing (by 43% over the last 20 years), with an estimated 23 000 adult individuals left in the wild. The species has disappeared from most of its former historic range and now has a broken range across Africa, regionally extinct in at least 15 African countries, with a relic population in the Gir Forest in India. Habitat loss and human conflict are major threats of course, but one of the most sickening threats is poaching, as the body parts are in demand in China for traditional medicine, a terrible end for what’s arguably been the world’s most influential species since the days of the Roman Empire…

For more information, contact Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris, a local wildlife specialist in South Africa to book directly safari adventures available throughout the year.


About the author

Lawson's Birding & custom safaris

Leon Marais

Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris

Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris are South Africa’s original birding outfit, offering top class set-departure, memorable custom birding tours and wildlife safaris Southern Africa