Big cat safaris in South Africa

When we talk about safaris in South Africa, we automatically think of the Big Five, those iconic animals considered by big game hunters back in the day to be among the most difficult to track down on foot: elephants, leopards, Cape buffalo, black rhinos and of course the mighty lion. The king of the jungle (who doesn’t actually live in the jungle) is an awe-inspiring sight, even when he’s just lazing about under a tree.

Many safaris take place in another South African icon: Kruger National Park in the far northeast of the country, as well as the reserves in the Greater Kruger Park such as Balule, Wild Rivers, Klaserie or Thornybush. Moving between reserves, and lodge accommodations, allows for a much more rounded safari experience. Kruger is justifiably famous as one of the best places in Africa in which to admire the Big Five, and as such can get very busy during the peak season. But given the sheer vastness of South Africa, and how prolific the wildlife here, you can really visit at any time of year and have good expectations of big cat sightings. And not just lions – leopards and cheetahs too.
Where your typical African safari will focus on game drives and bush walks throughout, we also have trips that combine wildlife viewing with learning about, and actually assisting with conservation projects. These typically focus on the leopards of Kruger, where you might start off your trip by learning how to track them with a ranger, and how to set up a motion-sensitive camera and decide where to place it. While lions are relatively easy to find in Kruger, leopards are typically much more elusive, so these research-themed trips are a great way to actually see an animal most people do not. At the end of your stay footage will be reviewed to see whether you’ve been lucky enough to pick anything up, and the data will be passed around to help with research on leopards’ territorial behaviour.

You may also spend some time at the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre, meeting lions, leopards and other animals that have been abandoned, injured or poisoned and will hopefully be eventually returned to the wild.

Big cat photography tours
in South Africa

Some safaris are aimed expressly at professional and keen amateur photographers, with itineraries shaped around your interests, or the skills you’d like to develop such as field craft or ‘walk and stalk’. Exclusive access to huge reserves such as these is a unique thing, and it allows you to move around as nature dictates, without time constraints.

When you talk to the experts on big cat safaris one of the first things they will always, and rightly, recommend, is that you don’t immediately reach for the camera when a suitable subject makes an appearance. But trips that are tailored to photographers are a different beast altogether, with the freedom to stay as long as you like somewhere, try different angles, and explore areas where there are far fewer safari groups around.

Our top Big cat safaris Vacation

South Africa safari vacation, 14 days

South Africa safari vacation, 14 days

Award winning safari in South Africa

From £4195 to £4495 14 days ex flights
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Safari practicalities

Big cat safaris in South Africa are usually small group trips, typically with eight people or fewer traveling. These lock you into set dates and itineraries, but are usually very cost effective and mean that all of the logistics throughout are taken care of on your behalf so you can simply enjoy the journey. Alternatively, tailor made itineraries allow for children as young as six to take part, and can be honed to match your interests or energy levels.
Will Fox, CEO of our supplier On Track Safaris, discusses leopard monitoring in South Africa:
“I’ve been managing our leopard research program for 15 years. It utilises hundreds of camera traps to monitor leopard and all wildlife movements and behaviours. Our guests in South Africa are given a camera trap to put out on our home reserve in a place of their choosing, where they think a leopard will walk. That camera is left running throughout their safari and they then review the results footage at the end. This exercise is (of course) a bit of fun, but moreover it gets guests thinking. In addition they get to meet our researchers and have a presentation on our work.”

“[The most exciting part of the vacation was] seeing some amazing animals and birds very close: special high points include the excitement of tracking leopard and seeing a young male, setting camera traps and seeing what had wandered past (yes, leopard!), walking with cheetah, seeing cheetah mum playing with four cubs, watching lion hunt buffalo, being very close to a grumpy black rhino, to seeing porcupines and bush babies. But more than this, we learnt so much about Africa and conservation from such passionate people.” – Fiona Harland in a review of her Big five safari in South Africa
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Christian Keller] [Intro: Bernard DUPONT] [Big cat photography tours : Chen Hu] [Safari practicalities: MSGNP]