There's nothing quite like the first time you see an elephant in the wild. For one thing, their sheer size is astounding; for another, they emanate a kind of raw power and wisdom that most safari-goers find humbling. Each elephant has its own distinct character, from the protective matriarch to the bolshy teenage males to the playful babies with their coating of stiff orange hair. To watch them interact in their natural environment is an experience that few people will forget in a hurry.
In some parts of Africa, poaching and habitat loss have led to the disappearance of elephant populations at a rapid rate. Fortunately, however, many of the continent's most popular safari destinations – Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa and Botswana, for example – still have healthy herds. As such, you're likely to spot elephants in most of Southern Africa's major national parks. In this article, we focus on five of the best places to see huge herds.
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Chobe National Park in the northwest region of Botswana is renowned for a very high density of elephants – around 120,000 in total, most living in large herds. They swim across the Chobe River at sunset, prod their little ones forward on a march through the dry landscape, and casually strip bark from whatever trees they have not yet destroyed. The adjacent wildlife reserves, Savute and Linyanti, also provide the ideal habitat for elephants. During the dry season in particular, elephants come to visit from neighboring Zimbabwe and Namibia. Many lodges and camps in this area overlook rivers, channels or waterholes and you'll likely see elephants coming to drink or cool themselves down right from camp. Enjoy Savute Safari Lodge during the dry season, where a dinner is accompanied by dozens of elephant just feet away.
Amboseli National Park, Kenya
Located in southern Kenya, Amboseli National Park lies on the Tanzanian border, in the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro. Its star attraction is its huge herds of elephant, which sometimes number hundreds of individuals. The herds are encouraged to stay in the park all year round due to the abundant available water found at a natural swamp fed by the melting snows of Kilimanjaro. Of course, Kilimanjaro's snow-capped peak also makes for a spectacular backdrop for your elephant photos. Amboseli's rolling grasslands also attract older males with huge tusks, who need to feed on softer grasses as their teeth wear down. This is where world-renowned conservationist Cynthia Moss runs her highly regarded Amboseli Trust for Elephants. In addition, the park is also home to many predators including lion, cheetah, and leopard.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
The Okavango River cuts through the center of Botswana's Kalahari Desert, creating a unique inland water system known as the Okavango Delta. As a valuable source of water in an otherwise arid landscape, the Delta gives life to a huge variety of birds and mammals, including large herds of elephant. Most of the safari camps in the area offer excellent elephant sightings; either from a boat or traditional mokoro canoe, or on foot during a walking safari. If you want a truly special insight into the elephants' way of life, you should head to Abu Camp (located on a private concession) or one of the two Sanctuary camps (Baines' or Stanley's) for an unparalleled "living with elephants" experience. Here you will get to meet habituated elephants that you can touch, smell and physically interact with while learning all about them.
Tarangire National Park, Tanzania
Tarangire National Park may not be the most famous of Tanzania's Northern Circuit reserves (that title belongs to the Serengeti), but it does stand out for elephant lovers. It has the largest elephant population in northern Tanzania, with some herds boasting several hundred members. The best time to visit is during the dry season, when the Tarangire River (which flows through the park) acts as the only reliable source of water for miles around, drawing elephants and other animals from the surrounding nature areas. Although there is always water in some parts of the river, others dry up during the dry season. Tarangire's elephants have developed a unique behavior to deal with drought. Using receptors in their trunks, they can locate water running under the surface, then dig down to it using their tusks. This is known as "sand-drinking".
Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
As its name suggests, Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa's Eastern Cape province is all about elephants. It was created in 1931 to bring the local population back from the brink of extinction after a large-scale cull. From just 11 individuals in 1931, the park now sustains a population of more than 600 elephants. Its relatively small size makes it easy to spot them, especially on hot days when they tend to congregate in huge numbers around the park's waterholes. You can watch as the adults wallow in the water and spray themselves with great fountains of it; while the babies push and shove each other in the muddy shallows. Best of all, Addo is probably the most accessible park on this list. You can reach it in just over 30 minutes from Port Elizabeth, and self-drive safaris are both easy and amazingly affordable.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on August 14 2019.