Africa is home to dozens of National game parks and game reserves, every last one of them having something unique to offer whether large mammals, big fish, trekking gorillas and chimpanzees or bird watching. For first time visitors wondering where to go and what activities to do while visiting these places, here is a list of the top national game parks in Africa.
1. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
This is the oldest and largest national park in Africa. It is a World Heritage Site Teeming with over 2 million ungulates, 4000 lions, 1000 leopards, 550 Cheetahs and about 500 bird species that inhabit an area close to 15,000 square kilometers.
The Serengeti also hosts the second largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world which helps secure it as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa and also as The Ten Natural Wonders of Africa. The name “Serengeti” is derived from the word “serengiti” in the maasai language meaning “endless plains”
2. Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Also spelled as Maasai Mara, is the largest national reserve in Kenya adjacent to Serengeti National Park. It is named in honor of the Masai people who were the ancestral inhabitants of the area but later migrated to the Nile Basin. Maasai Mara is one of the most famous and important wildlife conservation and wilderness areas in Africa, world-renowned for its exceptional populations of Lions, African leopards, cheetahs and African bush elephants. Just like the serengeti, Masai Mara also hosts one of the great migrations and has also been secured as one of the Seven Natural wonders of Africa.
When it was originally established in 1961 as a wildlife sanctuary, it covered 520 square kilometers including the Mara triangle. The area was extended to cover 1821 square kilometers but was later reduced in 1967 to 1510 square kilometers. Wildebeest are the dominant inhabitants of the Maasai Mara, and their numbers are estimated in the millions. Around July of each year, these animals migrate north from the Serengeti plains in search of fresh pasture, and return to the south around October.
3. Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe
Mana Pools is one of the best places to travel for adventure in Africa. It offers one the thrilling opportunity to canoe through one of Africa’s pristine wilderness wetlands in the form of forest-fringed Zambezi river and a network of associated pools. Whether it's paddling or walking one should expect to see an abundance of hippos, rhinos, elephants, buffaloes among others.
It is located in lower Zambezi river where the floodplains turn into a broad expanse of lakes after each rainy season but as the lakes naturally dry up and recede, the region attracts a large number of animals in search for water making it one of Africa’s most renowned game viewing regions. Mana pools is a home to a wide range of animals over 350 bird species, aquatic life and is one of the World’s wildest and best preserved natural ecological areas. Mana pools cover an area of 6766 square kilometers.
4. Etosha National Park, Namibia
Namibia’s flagship reserve Etosha is dominated by the vast, saline and normally dry pan for which it is named. The pan is lined by a series of perennial waterholes, some floodlit at night that attracts a large number of antelopes, giraffes and other grazers during the dry season.
It spans an area of 22,270 km2 and gets its name from the large Etosha pan which is almost entirely within the park. With an area of 4,760 km2, the Etosha pan covers 23% of the total area of the national park. The area is home to hundreds of species of mammals, birds and reptiles, including several threatened and endangered species such as the black rhinoceros.
The salt pan is usually dry, but fills with water briefly in the summer, when it attracts pelicans and flamingos in particular. In the dry season, winds blowing across the salt pan pick up saline dust and carry it across the country and out over the southern Atlantic. This salt enrichment provides minerals to the soil downwind of the pan on which some wildlife depends, though the salinity also creates challenges to farming.
5. Kruger National Park, South Africa
Most travelers focus more on the South because of its proximity to Johannesburg but the more remote north is where to go if you want to get off the beaten track. It is one of the largest game parks in Africa covering an area of 19,623 km2 in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga in northeastern South Africa, and extends 360 km from north to south and 65 km from east to west. The park is part of the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere, an area designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an International Man and Biosphere Reserve.
Kruger Park supports 147 mammal species, the largest number than most in African National Parks including a prodigious population of the big five together with cheetahs, hippos, zebras, giraffes, warthogs, baboons, over 20 antelope species and 517 bird species.
6. Amboseli National Park, Kenya
The World’s tallest freestanding mountain and heftiest terrestrial mammal are key attractions of the park. Formerly known as The Maasai Amboseli Game Reserve, it spreads over the Kenya-Tanzania Border covering an area of 392 square kilometers. It is one of the best wildlife viewing experiences in the world with over 400 bird species including water birds like pelicans, king fishers, crakes, hamerkop and 47 raptor species.
The park protects two of the five main swamps in Kenya. The park is famous for being the best place in the world to get close to free-ranging elephants. Other attractions of the park include opportunities to meet Maasai and visit a Maasai village. It is from here that one obtains the most inspiring views of snow-capped Kilimanjaro as it towers above the animal-rich plains of East Africa. Amboseli hosts the world’s longest-running elephant study, established in 1975, and it is the one of the best places to visit in Africa to see interaction between elephants, which are unusually well habituated and impressively tusked here.
The park was also a safe haven to an incredible bull elephant named Tim. This mighty leviathan quickly became one of the major attractions with his size and iconic tusks that reached the ground and was estimated to be around 50 years old at the time of his death from natural causes on February 5, 2020.
Amboseli National Park offers some of the best opportunities to see African wildlife because the vegetation is sparse due to the long, dry months. The protected area is home to African bush elephants, Cape buffalo, impala, lion, cheetah, spotted hyena, Masai giraffe, Grant's zebra, and blue wildebeest
The park has several rules to protect the wildlife: Never leave the vehicle, except at designated spots; do not harass the animals in any way; always keep to the tracks; no off-road driving; and always give the animals the right of way. The roads in Amboseli have a loose surface of volcanic soil that is dusty in the dry season and impassable in the wet season.
7. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
It is renowned for its excellent night drives but the real deal is a multi-day trek between semi-permanent fly camps soaking up the sights and scents of the bush without distraction from a running engine. It supports large populations of Thornicroft's giraffes, and herds of elephants and Cape buffaloes often several hundred strong. It is one of the best-known national parks in Africa for walking safaris. Founded as a game reserve in 1938, it became a national park in 1972 and now covers 9,050 square kilometers.
The Park is unfenced and bordered to the west by a steep escarpment and to the east by the Luangwa River. The Luangwa Valley lies at the tail end of the Great African Rift Valley system, which extends 4,000 km all the way from the Red Sea down to the Pungwe River mouth in Mozambique
The Muchinga Escarpment in Northern and Central Provinces forms the park's western or north-western boundary, it slopes down from there to the river, lying mostly on its western bank. The eastern bank of the river is in Eastern Province, and as access to the park is only from that side, it is usually thought of as being wholly in Eastern Province. Although this park is generally well-protected from poaching, its black rhinos were extirpated by 1987, and the elephant population has been under serious pressure at times.
8. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
This profuse forested park is one of the best places to visit in Africa, the world’s largest primates weighing up to 200kg found in their misty mountains. The park is part of Bwindi Forest which is situated along the Democratic Republic of Congo border next to Virunga National Park. It covers an area of 321 square kilometers of both montane and lowland forests. The park is also a sanctuary of colobus monkeys, chimpanzees and many birds like the hornbill and turacos.
It is notable for the 400 Bwindi gorillas which are half of the population of the World’s most endangered mountain gorillas. The mountain gorilla is an endangered species, with an estimated total population of about 650 individuals. There are no mountain gorillas in captivity, but during the 1960s and 1970s, some were captured to start captive breeding.
Bwindi Impenetrable provides habitat for a diversity of fauna including 120 species of mammals, 348 species of birds, 220 species of butterflies, 27 species of frogs, chameleons, geckos and many endangered species. In terms of flora, the park is home to more than 1000 flowering plants including 163 species of trees and 104 species of ferns.
9. Okavango Delta National Park, Botswana
The vast inland delta created by the Kavango River as it sinks into the sands of the Kalahari Desert ranks among the best places to visit in Africa for close encounters with hippos, crocodiles and other aquatic wildlife. One of the unique characteristics of the site is that the annual flooding from the River Okavango occurs during the dry season, with the result that the native plants and animals have synchronized their biological cycles with these seasonal rains and floods. The Okavango Delta is home to some of the world’s most endangered species of large mammals such as the cheetah, white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, African wild dog and lion.
Most alluringly explored in a professionally-poled mokoro dugout canoe, it is also home to plenty of elephants and smaller numbers of lion and leopard, but the real attraction is the delta’s primal sense of place.
10. Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania
Home to over 800 chimpanzees, Mahale is one of the best National parks to visit if you want to get close to man’s closest living relative. Mahale protects a stretch of jungle-draped Rift Valley escarpment verging on the staggeringly beautiful Lake Tanganyika. The chimpanzees of Mahale were habituated by Japanese researchers in the 1960s, and are so relaxed that it isn't unusual to have a full-grown adult brush casually past, only a few inches away from you.
Another unusual feature of the park is that it is one of the very few in Africa that must be experienced by foot since there are no roads or other infrastructure within the park boundaries, and the only way in and out of the park is via boat on the lake. The park covers an area of 1074 square kilometers and because of its size and remoteness, the eastern chimpanzees flourish.
Named after the Mahale Mountains range that is within its borders, the park has several unusual characteristics. First, it is one of only two protected areas for chimpanzees in the country and the other is nearby Gombe Stream National Park made famous by the researcher Jane Goodall.