Elephants are always near the top of the list of animals that everyone wants to see when they go on safari to Africa. The good news is that just about every national park and game reserve with a good mix of general game will offer excellent elephant sightings, however there are a few places that are especially good for a variety of reasons.
Most of these places will be huge reserves with very large populations of elephants attracted by plenty of water and abundant food, and a large elephant population means you have a better chance of seeing a really large herd, young babies or a massive bull elephant.
These are five of our favorite places to see elephants in the wild:
Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
Elephants love water, and huge herds are attracted to the forests and plains on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River on the southern border of Zambia.
The river and its numerous channels ensure there are always lots of elephants in the area, and in addition to guided game drives, the camps here offer water-based activities including boat safaris and canoeing that give guests the chance to see elephants from a hippo’s eye view on the river.
The acacia forests on the banks of the river are an atmospheric backdrop to the game viewing here, and it is often possible to drift silently on the water and end up closer to a bull elephant than you might feel comfortable being on land!
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Chobe National Park is the second largest national park in Botswana, and is famous for its huge elephant population. There are a number of lodges in the area that offer a combination of game drives and boat safaris, and it is not uncommon to see herds of up to 200 elephants on the flood plains that border the river.
There are a couple of spots on the river that are particularly popular with both elephants and safari-goers in the late afternoon, and watching the herds drift away from the river as the sun sets can provide some unforgettable memories and photos.
In addition to the safari lodges in and around the park, there are also a handful of houseboats that operate on the river. As well as allowing guests to enjoy excellent game viewing from the water, staying on a house boast also allows access to parts of the river not served by the road network and which the safari boats from lodges on the land do not have time to travel to.
The Okavango Delta, Botswana
Whilst the Lower Zambezi and Chobe have their huge rivers to attract large herds of elephants, the Okavango Delta has the annual floods which see waters from the Angola highlands cover a huge area of northern Botswana. These flood waters concentrate the wildlife on the countless islands in the Delta between June and October, and of course the vast water-filled flood plains are great news for the water-loving elephants.
Amboseli National Park, Kenya
Amboseli National Park hardly counts as an unknown gem as it is Kenya’s second most visited national park. Having said that, the sight of a herd of elephants crossing the park with the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro in the background means that it remains an outstanding place to see elephants in the wild.
Most visitors to the park here will spend just a day or two before moving on to the Masai Mara, however it is definitely worth the trip and the chance of snapping an iconic photo.
Kunene Region, Nambia
The elephants of Namibia’s desert and semi-desert regions do not seem to have got the memo about liking water. Whilst the wonderful Etosha National Park has numerous well visited waterholes, and even the Etosha Pan sometimes has some water in it after heavy rains, Namibia is one of the driest places on Earth, and it is always amazing to see elephants in parts of the country which rarely see rain and it is hard to imagine how they can survive.
Whilst genetically no different from their cousins who live in wetter lands with a greater abundance of food, these elephants have adapted their behaviour to the harsh conditions of the desert. They eat less, drink less, and walk up to 70 km per day to feed and find water. Although surface water is extremely scarce, the elephants appear to have a tremendous knack for remembering where the nearest water supply is – and not necessarily a natural waterhole: they are not averse to knocking over a farmer’s water tank!
The fact that they exist in an environment in which they have to compete with humans for water, means that these elephants can be a bit more aggressive than those in national parks, however if you go on a trip with the right guide then they can also provide some wonderful pictures and memories.
Paul Campbell is a Co-founder and Managing Director at Travel Butlers. Travel Butlers are specialists in tailor-made safari and beach holidays to Africa and the Indian Ocean.