The 11 Best National Parks in Eastern & Southern Africa (10 minute read)

(Last Updated On: August 25, 2022)

In total, the African continent is home to more than 370 national parks. Kenya is home to the most, with 23. And this isn’t including other wildlife reserves which don’t boast “national park” status. For travellers looking to enjoy a safari to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, buffalo), east and southern Africa tend to be the main destinations. They’re also home to the most stunning scenery, from Botswana’s Makgadikgadi salt pan to the inhospitable Namib Desert. It’s this region that we’re going to focus on in this article. From the dense jungles of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda to the famous annual migration of the Serengeti, here’s our guide to the best national parks in Africa.

 

1. Serengeti National Park

Country: Tanzania

Size: 14,763 km²

Year established: 1951

Flagship species: Wildebeest

Best time to visit: June – October

Highlights: The most famous of Africa’s national parks, and probably the most pristine African wilderness left, the Serengeti National Park is home to the Great Migration. Each year millions of wildebeest, zebra and antelope make the 800km trek between the Serengeti and neighbouring Masai Mara in Kenya. They do this because they are following the rains that keep their favoured grass lush and delicious! And where there are millions of possible lunches, there are plenty of predators. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas follow the herds. Many animals also drown crossing the mighty Mara River or are claimed by hungry crocodiles. The dry season from June to October gives you the greatest chance to see this incredible spectacle at its fullest. But as one of the best national parks in Africa, any month of the year is great for wildlife viewing.

The Great wildebeest Migration in the Serengeti, one of Africa's best national parks
The Great Migration is probably the safari highlight of Africa – head to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to see it for yourself

2. Etosha National Park

Country: Namibia

Size: 22,270 km²

Year established: 1907

Flagship species: Black rhino

Best time to visit: June – October

Highlights: What makes Etosha National Park so unique is that around a quarter of its 22,000 square kilometres consists of the desolate but beautiful Etosha salt pan. During the wet season, much of the pan fills with water and becomes a temporary refuge for flamingos and pelicans. Lots of other species also gather at these watering holes, meaning good game viewing is virtually guaranteed. Four of the Big Five (excluding buffalo) reside in the park, and it is regarded as the best place in Africa to see the endangered black rhino. This is because about 70% of Namibia’s 2,700 black rhinos live in Etosha. The dry season from June to October is the best time to visit because fewer water sources mean wildlife is concentrated around the remaining watering holes.

A rare black rhino with a bird in Etosha National Park, Namibia
The critically endangered black rhino lives in decent numbers in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, one of the final strongholds for the species

3. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Country: Uganda

Size: 331 km²

Year established: 1991

Flagship species: Mountain gorilla

Best time to visit: December – February & June – August

Highlights: The clue is in the name. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was created in the dense tropical jungles of Uganda as a haven for the endangered mountain gorilla. This is because these animals had been relentlessly poached by man for decades, and were in real danger of extinction. Even today, just over 1,000 animals survive in a handful of national parks in Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo. But this is a remarkable improvement from the low of just 680 animals in the 1980s.

Travellers must pay for a gorilla permit before being escorted by a guide into the dense forest of the national park, where they can spend up to an hour watching these incredible creatures from a safe distance. The money spent on these permits goes towards their continued conservation, paying for rangers, anti-poaching patrols and also the removal of lethal snares. Gorillas are easier to spot in the dry seasons when vegetation is less thick.

A male silverback gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda - one of the best national parks in Africa for spotting mountain gorillas
A silverback gorilla in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, one of the only places mountain gorillas live

4. Makgadikgadi Pan National Park

Country: Botswana

Size: 3,900 km²

Year established: 1992

Flagship species: Zebra, elephant, flamingo

Best time to visit: March – October

Highlights: The Makgadikgadi Salt Pan is a dried-up lakebed, located in the heart of Botswana, surrounded by the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta. The unusual landscape attracts travellers, with sunrise and sunset, in particular, being an amazing time to visit the flat white expanse. The Makgadikgadi has never been inhabited by people and is the definition of remote.

In terms of wildlife, there isn’t as much to see as in other national parks. But the grasslands surrounding the salt pans are home to the largest zebra migration outside of Kenya and Tanzania. Elephants can be found along the Boteti River and in wet years huge flocks of flamingo are attracted to feed on the shrimp which lie dormant on the lakebed below the white salt crust. They are best viewed from the air, by helicopter or small plane. And the pans are best visited in the dry season from March to October. This is because roads become impassable in wetter months.

There's not much wildlife in the Makgadikgadi but it's one of the best national parks in Africa for stunning views!
The Makgadikgadi in Botswana is one of the best national parks in Africa: a jaw-dropping landscape, with wildlife easy to spot on the flat, salty terrain

5. Kruger National Park

Country: South Africa

Size: 19,623 km²

Year established: 1926

Flagship species: Elephant, African wild dog

Best time to visit: May – September

Highlights: Tucked away in the north-eastern corner of South Africa, Kruger National Park is renowned for having the largest number of different mammal species in the whole of Africa. All of the Big Five reside here, as do African wild dogs, cheetahs, hippos, giraffes and a great diversity of antelope and other prey animals. Elephants, considered rare across much of east and southern Africa, are a common species here and are spotted on virtually every safari into the park. As with much of Africa, Kruger is best visited during the dry season from May to September, when vegetation is thinner, and animals gather at watering holes.

A giraffe mother and her calf in one of the best national parks in Africa - Kruger, South Africa
A mother giraffe and her calf in Kruger National Park, South Africa

6. Chobe National Park

Country: Botswana

Size: 11,700 km²

Year established: 1967

Flagship species: Elephant, lion

Best time to visit: May – September

Highlights: Regarded as Botswana’s best national park, Chobe National Park is incredibly ecologically diverse. This is partly because of its proximity to the Okavango Delta, and the subsequent number of waterways. River cruises on the Chobe River are a popular way to explore the park, alongside traditional land safaris. The lion population in Chobe is different from others in Africa because many of the prides switch their target prey to elephants in the late dry season from August to November. Lions in other areas of Africa rarely take on such large prey. This is largely because of the sheer number of elephants in the park – around 50,000. Chobe makes for excellent game viewing all year round, though May to September, in particular, stand out.

A male and female lion in Chobe National Park, Botswana
Chobe National Park in Botswana is one of the best national parks in Africa to see lions and elephants

7. Amboseli National Park

Country: Kenya

Size: 392 km²

Year established: 1974

Flagship species: Elephant

Best time to visit: January – February & June – October

Highlights: Although one of the smaller national parks on this list, Amboseli consistently ranks as one of the best national parks in Africa. This is because it benefits from flat terrain, a short wet season and the stunning backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro. In terms of wildlife, the park is regarded as the best place in the world to see wild elephants, with more than 1,000 living within the tiny reserve. Unlike many national parks, Amboseli has never really had to deal with the scourge of poaching, and as a result the elephants are more relaxed around vehicles than in some destinations.

Other species to occur in healthy numbers include buffalo, lion, and giraffe, although rhino are absent from the park. Amboseli’s short wet season from April to May is best avoided, but the rest of the year (in particular June to October) makes a great time to visit.

A herd of elephants in front of Mount Kilimanjaro in Amboseli National Park, Kenya
Although small, Amboseli, Kenya is one of the best national parks in Africa to see wild elephants, with amazing views of Mount Kilimanjaro too!

8. South Luangwa National Park

Country: Zambia

Size: 9,050 km²

Year established: 1972

Flagship species: Buffalo, African wild dog

Best time to visit: July – November

Highlights: Known as the home of the walking safari, the remoteness of South Luangwa National Park means it gets much less busy than some of its more famous counterparts. Much of the wildlife congregates along the Luangwa River, with hippos and crocodiles being particularly common. Buffalo herds here can be several hundred strong, and there is a healthy population of lions.

Sadly there are no rhinos here following decades of poaching, but the endangered African wild dog reappeared in the park in 2015 after years of absence. South Luangwa is now home to the highest density of African wild dogs in all of Zambia, with more than 350 individuals thought to live here. And night-time safaris are a great way to see the park’s hyena population. The months of July to November mark the middle of the dry season and the best time to visit. Though it is worth bearing in mind that temperatures can soar in October and November.

A buffalo in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. The reserve is one of the best national parks in Africa to see the buffalo, with herds of several hundred animals a common sight
A buffalo in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

9. Namib-Naukluft National Park

Country: Namibia

Size: 49,768 km²

Year established: 1907

Flagship species: Oryx, springbok

Best time to visit: May – September

Highlights: One of Africa’s largest national parks, Namib-Naukluft is most famous for the colossal red sand dunes of Sossusvlei and the impressive canyon of Sesriem. Whilst most of the park consists of the Namib Desert, it also extends to the Atlantic coast and beyond, into the sea.

The inhospitable nature of the desert means that spotting large mammals is incredibly unlikely. Some species, however, are specially adapted to the desert. Oryx and springbok antelope can be seen throughout the desert, and very occasionally hyenas and leopards wander into the park. Closer to the edge, and nearer to water sources, baboons, steenbok, and klipspringer can also be spotted. Being a desert means Namib-Naukluft can get very hot. Although it can be visited year-round, the cooler months of May to September are best advised for visitors.

The sand dunes of Sossusvlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia
The striking sand dunes of Sossusvlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

10. Hwange National Park

Country: Zimbabwe

Size: 14,651 km²

Year established: 1928

Flagship species: Lion, elephant, giraffe, African wild dog

Best time to visit: June – October

Highlights: Sadly, Hwange is as well known for its poaching incidence and big game hunting as it is for its wonderful wildlife. It was here that Cecil the Lion was killed by a big game hunter in 2015 and in 2013 a large number of elephants were poisoned with cyanide at a watering hole.

Despite these unfortunate headlines, Hwange remains the most popular national park in Zimbabwe, and is home to all of the Big Five (although rhinos are rare) plus healthy populations of several rare species. It is also one of the only places in the country where visitors can see giraffe and is home to one of Africa’s largest populations of African wild dog. Elephants have been so successful that a culling programme was introduced in the 1960s, though this was ended in 1986 after an outcry. There are more than 100,000 in the park, which authorities believe is double what the park can sustainably hold. Translocations to parts of Africa with fewer elephants are now being considered. Hwange National Park is also very close to Victoria Falls, a must-visit destination for anyone travelling in Zimbabwe. June to October are the best months to visit the park.

A pair of African wild dogs in Hwange, Zimbabwe - one of Africa's best national parks
African wild dogs live in decent numbers in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, despite being on the decline across much of Africa

11. Moremi Game Reserve

Country: Botswana

Size: 5,000 km²

Year established: 1963

Flagship species: African wild dog, birdlife, elephants

Best time to visit: May – August

Highlights: Located on the eastern side of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve is not technically a national park. The status of game reserve means that the local Bushmen tribe population were allowed to remain in the reserve, rather than being removed as they would have been if Moremi was designated a national park. However, Moremi is a national park in all but name, and is one of the best places to visit in Botswana for a safari.

Since the reintroduction of rhinos in the year 2000, Moremi is now home to all of the Big Five and is another important sanctuary for African wild dogs. The species is closely monitored by scientists here and it is not unusual to see individual wild dogs with tracking collars. Botswana as a whole and Moremi specifically are also home to some of Africa’s highest densities of wild elephants. Being located so close to the Okavango, a hugely important wetland, the reserve is also home to more than 500 bird species, making it a great destination for birdwatchers.

A group of African red-billed hornbills in Moremi Game Reserve
Any Lion King fans? Moremi Game Reserve is home to the red-billed hornbill, the species portrayed by zazu in the lion king!

Final thoughts

There are numerous other destinations to bear in mind when planning your African safari. The Okavango Delta in Botswana is not a national park, (though Moremi National Park covers around a third). But it is one of the best places to visit for wildlife on the entire continent. Kenya’s Masai Mara adjoins the Serengeti, and also plays host to the incredible Great Migration. And Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area is home to some of the highest densities of wildlife in Africa, plus it’s in a giant volcanic crater! But our selection of the best national parks in Africa covers multiple countries, and each offers something unique or the best wildlife experiences to be had on the continent.

Where would you visit if you could only pick one national park? Let us know in the comments and why not browse our range of African safaris to find the perfect trip?

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