The largest game reserve in Africa, Selous extends over 45,530 sq. km (17,757 sq. miles) of southeastern Tanzania, at the core of the thrice-larger Selous-Niassa ecosystem, which also incorporates Mikumi and Udzungwa National Parks, the swampy Kilombero Game Protected Area, the 37,660-sq.-km (14,687-sq.-mile) Niassa Game Reserve in northern Mozambique, and various other protected game corridors. This vast tract of untrammeled bush supports some of the world's most prodigious wildlife, with an estimated 120,000 to 150,000 buffalo, 70,000 elephant, 50,000 puku antelope (centered mainly on Kilombero), 40,000 hippo, 8,000 sable antelope, and 4,000 lion forming what are probably the largest extant populations of these species. In addition, the 1,300 African wild dogs that roam the Selous represent at least one-quarter of the noncaptive population of this endangered canid.
To some extent, the oft-quoted statistics about Selous -- a game reserve four times larger than the Serengeti and twice as large as Switzerland -- flatter to deceive. What the marketing folk generally neglect to mention is that 95% of this vast reserve is actually carved into hunting concessions and leased exclusively to private operators. This means that ordinary photographic safaris have access only to the relatively small portion of the Selous north of the Rufiji River, and all the camps and lodges catering to the general public lie within a few hours' drive of each other, making for a somewhat less exclusive experience than if they were more widely scattered.
All the same, coming from the likes of the central Serengeti or Masai Mara, the Selous does come across as refreshingly untrammeled. More significant for tourists, it offers perhaps the most varied range of activities of any safari destination in the region -- not just game drives, but boat excursions on the wide and sluggish Rufiji, Tanzania's largest river, as well as guided bush walks and fly-camping on the lakes, activities that are forbidden in most of the region's savannah national parks. Furthermore, whereas the Northern Circuit of Tanzania is dominated by large impersonal lodges that feel removed from their wilderness surroundings, accommodation in the Selous is uniformly down-to-earth, consisting of around half a dozen exclusive eco-friendly small camps.
Game drives in the Selous focus on a labyrinthine complex of five lakes and interconnecting channels fed by the Rufiji. Elephant, buffalo, giraffe, impala, common waterbuck, bushbuck, wildebeest, eland, greater kudu, and zebra are all common here, but the area is less reliable for big cats than many other reserves. Leopards are present but shy, while cheetahs haven't been recorded in the pubic part of the reserve in decades. Lions, by contrast, are very common, typically darker than average and with scragglier manes, and chances of seeing a kill are good during the dry season, when prides wait in the shady lake verges and pounce opportunistically on any thirsty animal that strays close by. Another plus is the high probability of spotting a pack of African wild dog, especially during the denning season from June to August.
For many, the highlights of a Selous safari are boat trips along the Rufiji, its muddy waters populated by high densities of crocodiles and hippos. Elephant, buffalo, and giraffe regularly come to drink at the riverbank, which is lined with tall borassus palms, and the birdlife is fantastic, ranging from shorebirds such as yellow-billed stork and African skimmer, to the fish eagles and palmnut vultures that perch high in the riverine trees, to the colorful bee-eaters and kingfishers that nest seasonally along the mud banks. Guided game walks are even more thrilling, offering a good chance of encountering the likes of elephant and lion on foot, but the ultimate Selous experience -- offered by all camps, ideally by advance arrangement -- is fly-camping on the lakeshore, separated from the surrounding bush by little more than a mosquito net.
The northern Selous was first proclaimed as a reserve in 1905, a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany to his wife, leading to its Swahili nickname of Shamba la Bibi (Field of the Wife). It was later named after Frederick Courtney Selous (pronounced "sel-oo"), a British-born professional hunter who died in battle in the 1917 Battle of the Bundu that took place there between German and British troops during World War I. Five years after Selous's death, the reserve was extended south of the Rufiji, and it attained its present size and shape in the 1940s, when the colonial government evacuated the area to curb a sleeping sickness epidemic. Selous Game Reserve became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.