East Africa sees some of the highest tourism numbers in the entire continent, and for good reason. With good infrastructure, relative stability, and pricing for all budgets, the area is also connected internationally with hubs like Nairobi, Dar Es Salaam, and Addis Ababa. But who are we kidding? The main draw is the incredible diversity of wildlife that inhabits the dozens of national parks the region has to offer. If you’re feeling overwhelmed trying to decide which ones to add to your itinerary, let us assuage those fears. We’ve compiled the 15 best wildlife parks in East Africa so you can experience all the region has to offer.
1) Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Serengeti is one of the oldest, most well known, and beloved wildlife parks in all of Africa. Known for its incredible diversity of wildlife, it is home to Africa’s Big Five and the idyllic images of savannah grassland. The Great Wildebeest Migration which happens each summer sees over 1.5 million of these animals migrate in a circular route through Tanzania and the adjoining Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya is one of the most documented and incredible animal migrations in the world.
2) Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda
Named after the famous waterfall located within its borders, Murchison Falls is one of the best places to view wildlife in East Africa, let alone Uganda. Buffalos, elephants, lions, kob, giraffes, and much more can be found here. The park is bisected by the White Nile and together with the nearby Bugungu Wildlife Reserve and Karuma Wildlife Reserve they form the Murchison Falls Conservation Area. There are dozens of tour operators that will take you here, and accommodation includes everything from camping in the open to five star resorts!
3) Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Sandwiched between larger neighbors like Tanzania and Congo, Rwanda has a few national parks and boy, do they have a lot to offer. The mountain gorilla is what has put Rwanda on the map for wildlife watchers in Africa and Volcanoes National Park is one of the only places in the world to get up close with these incredible animals in their natural habitat. Only a limited number of passes are issued per day (and far in advance), so if you plan a visit, book early. There are also eight dormant volcanoes you can hike as well, hence the park’s name.
4) Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Named for the proud and ancient warriors that inhabit the area where the park’s boundaries fall, Maasai Mara borders the Serengeti in Tanzania directly south. Besides a border, the Mara shares lions, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, zebras, leopards, and the increasingly rare rhino. The Great Wildebeest Migration is a huge draw not to mention the hippos and crocodiles found in the Mara River. Between all that, the Maasai people, the 95 animal species, and over 400 bird species, we couldn’t think of a better reason to go on safari here!
5) Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia
One of the most stunning and unique places in all of East Africa, the Simien Mountains are spread throughout northern Ethiopia. Famed for its incredible hiking, the park is home to many endangered species like the Ethiopian wolf and walia ibex, which are endemic to only this area. The main draw here though is to marvel at troops of gelada baboons which number in the thousands. With plenty of places to camp and excellent hiking, we recommend hiring a guide and taking a few days to explore the area and get back to nature.
6) Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
Recognized as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a must on most visitors’ itinerary of northern Tanzania. Set in the largest unfilled volcanic caldera in the world, the volcano collapsed millions of years ago leaving a depression 2,000 feet (600 meters) deep and covering over 100 square miles (250 km). Home to many of the species found in nearby Serengeti, tens of thousands of animals live in this relatively small area.
7) Mafia Island Marine Park, Tanzania
Possibly the best marine park in East Africa, Mafia Island was designated as a marine park with funding and help from the World Wildlife Fund in the 90s. With warm, crystal clear water for most of the year, the area is a veritable goldmine for scuba divers and snorkelers. Its reefs survived the warm El Nino waters that decimated many other places in the Indian Ocean between 1997-1998, and hundreds of species of fish, turtles, and other aquatic life thrive here.
8) Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya
Lake Nakuru National Park was created in 1961 making it one of Kenya’s oldest parks. Nakuru has an absolutely astounding diversity of wildlife but is most famous for its flamingos which can number in the millions, drawn to its warm waters and sometimes turning the lake into a sea of pink. The park is also home to over 100 rhinos (both black and white), large pythons, lions, cheetahs, leopards, and a large diverse bird population. Meaning “dusty place” in the Maasai language, it is anything but, all the more reason you should visit its lush shores.
9) Nyungwe National Forest, Rwanda
Nyungwe Forest is the best preserved old growth montane rainforest in East and Central Africa. Covered in dense forest and jungle, the park provides sanctuary for a dozen species of primates including Silver, Golden, Vervet, and L’Hoest’s Monkeys. The main draw for visitors here is tracking chimpanzees which are found in abundance. Ornithologists will rejoice as close to 300 bird species can be found, some of which are endemic to only the area. One of best ways to check out a panorama of the park is to take a canopy tour suspended high above the forest floor.
10) Virungas National Park, D.R.C.
Definitely the most difficult to visit of East Africa’s parks, Virungas is worth the effort. Rebel activity and poaching has closed the park time and again but as of late 2014, the park located in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is open for business. And good thing too, besides being one of three places to track gorillas in the wild, the active Nyiragongo Volcano is able to be climbed again with its large and active lava lake at the top!
11) Amboseli National Park, Kenya
Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya is hands down the best place to get up close to the abundant troops of free range elephants that inhabit the area. The long dry season and sparse vegetation make wildlife watching here ideal and with Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance framing everything, your pictures will be National Geographic worthy. Buffalo, impalas, lions, hyenas, zebras, and giraffes are easily spotted as well as hundreds of bird species.
12) Bale Mountains National Park, Ethiopia
Set in the southerly Ethiopian highlands, Bale Mountains is home to five unique ecosystems including grasslands, woodlands, Afro-alpine meadows, moorlands, and forest. With such diversity of landscape, the fauna is just as diverse with wolves, nyalas (an antelope), monkeys, and the endangered Painted Hunting Dog (though none have been spotted in recent years).
13) Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya
Hell’s Gate National Park is truly unique in Kenya. It is one of the only places where you can take a bicycle safari in the world, and without a guide as well! Don’t worry though, despite the abundant giraffes, zebras, and warthogs to name just a few, there are no predators meaning you can bike, walk, or drive through at your own pace without concern. How cool is that?!
14) Dahlak Marine National Park, Eritrea
Dahlak Marine National Park is one of Eritrea’s few. Dozens of islands make up this off-shore chain of white sand beaches and perfectly blue waters. The warm waters of the Red Sea mean marine life and coral reefs abound with idyllic conditions for diving and snorkeling. While Eritrea isn’t the easiest country to visit, and getting a permit here can take some finagling with the government, if you succeed, you will likely have the entire area to yourself. It’s a truly once in a lifetime experience.
15) Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda
One of the least visited parks in all of Uganda, Kidepo Valley is located in the far northeast of the country. Because of its remoteness, the park which shares borders with Kenya and newly-independent South Sudan has higher than average numbers of animals of which all of the main draws can be found. For a true, off the beaten path adventure, Kidepo Valley is your best bet.
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This article was originally published on January 16, 2015.