Where lions are king: How to track the big cats in Zambia

Wildlife conservationists are working to protect the lion population in southern Africa. Here’s how travelers can get involved.

Lions are disappearing. With populations cut in half over the last 25 years, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has classified the felines as vulnerable to extinction. To put into context, there are more rhinos, Western lowland gorillas, and African elephants in the wild than there are lions. But help is on the way.

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Thandiwe Mweetwa, a wildlife biologist working for the Zambian Carnivore Program in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, tracks and identifies lions to sustain their numbers and habitat. “Like many people, I had always found lions fascinating,” Mweetwa says. “The defining moment for me was the day I sat in a car surrounded by three young males roaring their lungs out. I had never experienced such power before.” (Meet the new generation saving Zambia’s lions.)

How can travelers get involved? Mweetwa says the best thing safarigoers can do is visit conservation areas and learn from organizations working to address the challenges lions face in the wild. This is an easy thing to do on game drives in Zambia, which is celebrated for its pristine wilderness areas and Victoria Falls excursions. As The Lion King roars into theaters, here are a few of Mweetwa’s favorite places to spot big cats. (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)

South Luangwa National Park

Because of its flat, grassy plains and low woodlands, South Luangwa National Park is an ideal place to see lions on foot in Zambia, says Mweetwa. Head to the park during the dry season (May to November), when you can glimpse these fierce felines congregating around permanent watering holes. In the park, Mweetwa recommends trekking to the main game-viewing area just past Mfuwe Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World. The Nsefu Sector and the Kapamba-Lusangazi river confluence in the south of the park make for prime perches to see prides in the area. (Discover why walking safaris are the best way to see wildlife.)

Safari tip: Toward the end of the dry season (late October to early November), the banks of the Luangwa River teem with birdlife. Bring your binoculars to spot great white pelicans, little bee-eaters, and African skimmers. While birdwatching, catch other safari highlights such as leopards, elephants, African buffalo, and hippos.

Kafue National Park

Less visited than its sister parks, Kafue National Park is one of the oldest and largest national parks in Zambia. It also happens to be a fantastic place to spot lions thanks to its acres of unspoiled wilderness—but take your time. “Drive slowly, approach with caution,” Mweetwa says. “Lions can be shy around humans and run away at the sound of a vehicle. Pay attention to tracks and signs, and you will find them in the most unexpected places.” (How to do wildlife tourism right.)

Safari tip: Lodging at Kafue National Park varies from remote tented camps to luxurious safari enclaves. Most accommodations close during the wet season (November to April); if you plan to visit during this period, look for lodges that stay open all year, such as Mayukuyuku Bush Camp and Mukambi Lodge.

Lower Zambezi National Park

Early morning is prime time to snap photos of lions playing in Lower Zambezi National Park. As temperatures rise with the sun, the big cats can usually be found dozing in the shade. “Travelers need to consider hunting patterns and behavior,” Mweeta says. “Dusk is a great time to watch lions. You get to watch lions transform from lazy cats to formidable hunters.” (Here’s what to know before going to Zambia.)

Lions are the only cats that live in groups, which are dominated by females. Older cubs are raised together as a creche, or nursery group, as seen here in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.
Lions are the only cats that live in groups, which are dominated by females. Older cubs are raised together as a creche, or nursery group, as seen here in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection

Safari tip: The easiest way to get to Lower Zambezi National Park is via Lusaka’s international airport. From there, Proflight Zambia offers short connecting flights to the airstrip, where your safari outfitter will transfer you to your lodge. In the dry season, self-driving safarigoers can make their own way to the park. Stop for lions—but stay in the truck!

Starlight Williams is an editorial researcher and writer at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
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