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National Parks, Conservancies, Private Concessions, & Private Game Reserves: What’s the Difference?

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A lone giraffe surrounded by a herd of zebras in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

Estosha National Park, Namibia

The inventory of safari destination types, from national parks to private concessions, can be baffling, and understanding where to safari requires knowing what each park or reserve has to offer.

National parks, private concessions, conservancies, and private game reserves are all fantastic, yet come with key differences. National parks are a country's flagship protected areas, filled with unrivaled animal abundance, while national conservation areas see wildlife and locals coexist. Private concessions lie within a national park, belonging to an area's broader ecosystem, and a private game reserve is smaller and standalone, offering fewer restrictions on activities and proximity to animals, and a more intimate safari.

In this article, we discuss the differences in more detail to help you understand how to plan your dream African safari experience.

  1. Why the Different Categories?
  2. Overview of the Types of Safari Destinations
  3. What is a National Park?
  4. What is a Conservancy?
  5. What is a Private Concession?
  6. What is a Private Game Reserve?
  7. Discover Your Preferred Safari Destination

Why the Different Categories?

Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Predominantly an administrative division, the park and reserve categories are based on how a safari destination is managed.

These categories are independent of an area's habitat, the core factor being the type of wildlife you are likely to see. There are big differences between government and privately managed areas, both in the scale of the safari and the day-to-day experience.

The differences dictate the types of activities available, while also determining whether the area is purely for wildlife or shared with the local community.

Overview of the Types of Safari Destinations

Chobe National Park, Botswana

From gargantuan national parks to tiny private game reserves, Africa has hundreds of safari destinations. How they have been gazetted into wildlife areas makes a difference to the safari experience. Subtle differences are found between countries, but in general, there are four types, as highlighted below.

  • National parks are a country's ultimate marker of conservation. Exclusively gazetted for wildlife and nature purposes, they can be visited by anyone who pays the entrance fee. Animal abundance is at its highest and the scale is often unfathomable. However, safari activities are restricted for conservation reasons and a national park can get overcrowded with tourists in high season. A variety of accommodation is available.
  • National conservancies, sometimes known as national reserves, provide a space for wildlife and local people to coexist, in many cases tribal groups who continue their traditional practices on the land. Conservation remains high and different reserves have different rules on safari activities. Access to the reserve is open to anyone paying the entrance fee. Public and privately managed accommodation is available.
  • Private concessions share unfenced boundaries within a national park and are part of a wider ecosystem or conservation area. Access is restricted to guests staying at the private lodge or camp within the concession. Restrictions on safari activities are more lenient and there is a blend of scale and intimacy. Some are seasonal destinations, dependent on wildlife movement.
  • Private game reserves offer an intimate and exclusive safari experience, usually within a relatively small, fenced area. There is little outside influence and a varied program of safari activities is encouraged. Wildlife abundance and wilderness ambiance vary considerably across the many private game reserves in Africa. Some share much closer characteristics with a private concession and can provide the continent's finest safari experiences.

A multi-day trip that combines safari destinations enables you to experience the different styles. It allows you to blend scale with intimacy and cherry-pick the most sublime experiences for your African safari. Note that while there are general characteristics for these categories of safari destination, the scale is very much a sliding one and conditions vary from country to country.

What is a National Park?

Kruger National Park, South Africa

Kruger National Park, South Africa

Many of the continent's large and world-famous safari destinations fall into this category, such as the Serengeti National Park and the Kruger National Park. They often cover large areas that dwarf European countries, but preserve small wildlife havens.

Gazetting a national park has huge implications as it makes the area an exclusive realm for wildlife, with local people having been moved out over time. There are many success stories of national parks removing and preventing the encroachment of industrial settlements, creating an uninterrupted space for wildlife to flourish. National park status provides the ultimate marker of conservation, one funded and protected by the national government.

Exploring a delicate habitat without making a lasting impact is not easy. National park authorities are always searching for a balance between fulfilling visitors' expectations and not interrupting nature's flow. Safari activities are usually restricted and carefully controlled, conducted in a 4x4 designated park game-drive vehicle or in a personal vehicle.

Drivers are not able to off-road and ignoring this rule comes at a hefty price. Wildlife viewing will not always be an intimate experience in a national park, remembering and respecting that you are entering the animals’ realm and exploring their territory.

Wildlife and Safari Activities

Such long-standing commitment to conservation ensures national parks have an abundance of wild animals. The numbers are staggering and in some national parks, mammals are counted in millions. Ungulates migrate with the seasons, spreading thinly and widely during the green season, then crowding around water during the dry months. Vast areas of a national park may seem barren, animals out of sight. However, skilled guides will follow seasonal clues to locate wildlife density. Natural rhythms also dictate the species that can be found.

There are very few national parks that contain the complete list of animals you want to see. The inherent wilderness and conservation focus also restricts the type of safari activities that are available. Predominantly, your wildlife viewing is done on game drives, usually early morning or late afternoon, sometimes a full day out is on the cards, depending on which national park you stay in.

The authorities must manage a huge area that's visited by perhaps hundreds of thousands of annual visitors. Doing it successfully and safely, while still promoting conservation, means restricting where visitors go and what they can do.

Accessibility and Accommodation

National parks charge an entrance fee that is used for conservation and maintaining park facilities, and there are usually no restrictions on the number of visitors that can be in the park at any one time. In the peak dry-season months, this can create a sense that the park is overcrowded with tourists and safari vehicles, particularly in the areas that are most accessible on a single-day safari. Those spending more than a day can usually escape the crowds around the same wildlife-abundant snippet of the park.

A mix of public and private accommodation is usually available. Public campsites and chalets offer modest facilities and are found in Southern Africa’s national parks, while in East Africa, larger hotel groups dot the landscapes. Private lodges and concessions also exist, paying large conservation fees for the privilege of their position within the park, one that rewards visitors with a total immersion into its abundance. Wildlife usually moves uninhibitedly through the park, bringing the bush to life, especially at night.

Why Safari in a National Park?

This may be the preferred option for travelers looking to stay in a larger park, in a larger property, perhaps more in the four-star range, or where the safari is simply part of a longer and larger African itinerary. Access is often a consideration, with several national parks located within easy reach of a main city or town. In a couple of hours, an exciting safari can be reached, with many in malaria-free areas, in southern Africa, for example. Group travel is popular, with the safari taking place in the park either as a day excursion or for a few nights.

National parks are home to the Big Five and large enough to allow animals to roam freely. Even small, less-famous national parks have a phenomenal profuseness, areas rolling to a very natural rhythm as the wildlife moves about. National parks, such as Chobe, may favor the volume of one species.

This park has close to 100,000 elephants, while Kruger has an abundance of lions. However, neither has everything. Habitats within a national park can provide different wildlife experiences, so staying for two or three days helps you look past the park's premier highlights to discover its less-abundant species.

Top National Parks to Visit

  • Chobe National Park, Botswana
  • Kruger National Park, South Africa
  • Etosha National Park, Namibia
  • Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
  • Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia

What is a Conservancy?

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya

Understanding why an area is not given national park status, but rather named a conservancy, is complicated, with financial or local community rights often being the reason. While the terminology varies across the continent, each country also has gazetted conservation areas that are managed by the government and could be called national reserves, wildlife concessions, conservation areas, or transfrontier conservation areas.

Unlike a national park, these conservancies are not afforded the highest level of conservation status. Local communities live amongst the wildlife, often in harsh conditions, with Maasai, Samburu, or San tribes being the most well-known. Kenya and Botswana maintain the equanimity between locals and wildlife through national reserves.

Conservation protects the natural environment from change. Permanent buildings are restricted, natural assets like forests and water are safeguarded, and the area is preserved from any industrial developments. Conservation areas vary in size, some helping preserve a tiny slice of land that was slowly getting encroached upon by human development.

Many conservation areas and reserves are integral in protecting the migration routes of famous species and the habitats of endangered characters. Others cross international boundaries and stretch across astonishing areas. For example, the almost 450,000km² of Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area is spread across five African safari countries.

Wildlife and Safari Activities

National reserves and conservation areas generally don't have the same wildlife density as a national park. They could be seasonal places, home to huge herds for a couple of months of the year, then relatively empty once the seasons change. Unusual and endangered species may find a haven within a national reserve, flourishing within a protected natural habitat.

There is usually a diverse collection of smaller mammals, those that have an easier relationship with resident communities. This allows you to go beyond notions of the Big Five and admire the dramatic variety of life that has evolved on Africa's wild plains.

Protecting the natural landscape is a big element of conservation. Going off the trails tramples the grass and interrupts the growth of flora, and can interrupt the behavior of wildlife. Like in national parks, visitors can rarely venture off the trails, regardless of the safari activity. Human settlements and activity make the conservation balance even more precarious, and damaging one area makes the competition for natural resources even more intense.

Staying on the trail can lead to brief moments of frustration – you see something and want to get closer, but these moments are brief, as going on safari imbues an indelible respect for these raw, natural landscapes.

Accessibility and Accommodation

National reserves and conservancies are publicly protected spaces, accessible to anyone paying the entrance fees. These vary by reserve and are usually on a similar level to those at a national park. Some broader conservation areas don't require conservation fees and may be driven through as you travel between destinations. Admiring an elephant or giraffe beside the main road is sometimes as memorable as witnessing one up close in a famed national park.

Like national parks, this public access can make a national conservancy or reserve crowded at certain times of the year. However, crowded is always a relative term and the scale of these conservation areas can be baffling.

A mix of accommodations can be found in these reserves and conservation areas, some of them provided by government authorities. Sleep amongst the wild sounds at public camping spots, enjoy luxury lodges with swimming pools frequented by elephants, or savor temporary camps deep within the wilderness. At the more famous conservation areas, there's often a broad selection of accommodation outside the conservation boundaries. Across the continent, select reserves provide an intimate cultural experience amongst the wildlife, with the opportunity to sleep in rustic, traditionally designed accommodations.

Why Safari in a Conservancy?

Consider a cultural and wildlife experience in one, and a safari in a conservancy may be just what you are looking for. Take Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve, for example. It is not gazetted as a national park, allowing the traditional Maasai landowners to keep living on the land. Cross the unmarked border to Tanzania's Serengeti National Park and you won't find the tribe's iconic bomas or homesteads anywhere within the park.

This intricate and harmonious survival of people and wildlife is also part of the experience, wonderfully evoked when you see a group of cattle being herded through the same place you've recently seen elephants and lions. Local guides reveal the skills to understanding animal behavior, tracking the subtle clues through miles of raw landscape. They're experts at preserving the landscape and protecting their property.

These conservation areas are shared realms and offer a local understanding of how to coexist with nature's wildest characters. This often translates into thrilling walking safaris, with a local guide unraveling the clues within an environment. Spotting a buffalo print in the mud is impressive, but even more impressive is having the tracker or guide tell you the buffalo's size, sex, and exactly when it left the print.

Traditional game drives remain the mainstay of the safari experience and these might be possible after dark. Safari activities really vary by reserve, but there is often a little more choice than in a national park. Some conservation areas specialize in safari's bespoke activities, like canoe trips, horseback riding, or cycling.

Top Conservancies to Visit:

  • Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
  • Maasai Mara Reserve, Kenya
  • Samburu National Reserve, Kenya
  • Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya
  • Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Laikipia, Kenya

What is a Private Concession?

Grumeti Game Reserve, Serengeti, Tanzania

Grumeti Game Reserve, Serengeti, Tanzania

A private concession is a privately managed area of a national park or national reserve that forms part of a broader ecosystem, free of fences and boundaries. Kenya refers to them as wildlife conservancies, while some of Southern Africa's private concessions are merely known as private game reserves.

Irrespective of the name, the central features are that these are privately managed areas offering exclusive experiences within a broader wildlife ecosystem, enabling the free passage of wildlife within a wider ecosystem, helping protect migration routes, and supporting seasonal changes.

Private concessions predominantly line the edge of a national park, helping extend the protected area beyond government-managed boundaries. Across the continent, there are many success stories of how landscapes have recovered and flourished under private management.

Some private concessions were historically hunting concessions, something that makes their transformation into leading conservation examples even more impressive. An uninterrupted natural habitat attracts more wildlife, enhancing the appeal to tourists who help fund conservation efforts through applicable fees charged during their safari and stay.

Wildlife and Safari Activities

Private concessions often share a national park or reserve's abundance. You can find 50-strong elephant herds rumbling through the bush or pools dominated by the barging antics of hippos. Every ecosystem has its subtleties and many have their distinct habitats, the landscape drawing specific species to that area and creating a premier place within a huge ecosystem to see one or two species.

The concession may be a buffer area, one where habitats collide, suggesting a tense interaction between herds as they cross, the concession becoming a crossroads as the wanderers pass the residents and the predators wait in their favorite hideout. Water often holds prime position in the concession's landscape, the fundamental allure that means wildlife keeps returning.

Safari activities are conducted by qualified guides at your lodge or camp. They impart their comprehensive knowledge and detailed understanding of the area to their guests, providing exhilarating activities and enhanced encounters. Spot the same bachelor buffalo herd in the same place every day or find crocodiles at their typical sunbathing spot.

As access to private concessions is restricted, only a handful of vehicles will be spotted on the landscape and there is often the opportunity to drive off-road. Getting off the main trail delivers an elevated sense of intimacy. So while the area around a concession may be small, game drives flicker between the private realm and the larger public space.

Accessibility and Accommodation

Private concessions combine the abundant wildlife of a national park with the intimacy of varied safari activities and exclusivity. In most cases, access is limited to the guests who are staying at the lodges or camps within the concession, some hosting just a few guests, perhaps 12 at the most. Even when there are multiple accommodation options, the experience is always geared towards exclusivity and escapism.

Everything is well-spaced and programs are carefully designed to maintain the impression of exploring your own private reserve. You are unlikely to see many other safari vehicles or visitors, yet the concession retains a national park's raw sense of wilderness.

Accommodation ranges from four- to five-star, with service befitting the exclusivity of the experience. Some concessions even have an elite camp reserved for just two guests, a luxury honeymoon option, and a chance to completely escape from other people. Guests may arrive by light aircraft at an airstrip within the concession or via a land transfer from a nearby airport.

Many concessions will recommend at least two nights so you can experience the different angles and get the most from your safari. Exploring the same area in different ways is as eye-opening as exploring a larger area in a safari vehicle. Lodges and camps offer flexible programs, enabling you to build an itinerary based on your interests and their recommendations. This supports private concessions in becoming all-year-round destinations, as the safari can be tailored to the seasonal movements of animals.

Why Safari in a Private Concession?

Private concessions are relatively devoid of tourists and noisy safari vehicles, and are an excellent option if being part of a larger national park, while experiencing a private safari, is what you are looking for.

Wildlife is not interrupted as over time, guides come to learn about the local residents, the animals that wander past at the same time every evening, or the herds that graze beside the tents each morning. This enables safari activities to be tailored throughout the day, so you've always got a prime seat when something remarkable walks past the camp.

The range and intimacy of safari activities consistently place private concessions amongst Africa's finest safari experiences. Safari is not restricted to the private concession, the unfenced borders providing immediate movement from the concession to the rest of the national park. While the wildlife sights are similar to the adjacent national park, a private concession provides an array of new angles, including walking safaris, horseback riding, and night drives.

Some days are spent heading deep into the national park on all-day activities, while others can be centered around an intimate area beside the camp. The area is privately managed and a mixed program of activities is encouraged, rather than merely offered.

Top Private Concessions to Visit:

  • Linyanti Concession, Botswana
  • Grumeti Game Reserve, Serengeti, Tanzania
  • Singita Lebombo Concession, Kruger National Park
  • Mashatu Game Reserve, Tuli Block, Botswana
  • Camp Shawu, Kruger National Park

What is a Private Game Reserve?

Ongava Private Game Reserve, Namibia

Ongava Private Game Reserve, Namibia

Private game reserves provide the ultimate in a luxury, exclusive safari experience. Some have a defined focus on conservation and may have played a crucial role in preserving a wildlife realm. Others have transported wildlife to a new area, placing different species in their natural habitat to successfully preserve some of Africa's endangered species, particularly the rhino. By moving the animals from large, difficult-to-guard habitats, private game reserves have been able to nurture an important species.

Private game reserves tend to be fenced, restricting animal movement into and out of a lodge or camp's main area. Some are not fenced, allowing free roaming for all wildlife. If the private reserve borders a national park, fences are usually down, offering more space for animals to traverse.

Reserves must manage their resources and ensure the landscape can be shared amongst the animal population. For example, vegetation needs to be sustainable for, say, a herd of 20 elephants, while also ensuring there is enough nutrition for other mammals browsing in the same area.

Wildlife and Safari Activities

Private game reserves predominantly offer an easy introductory safari experience, one with an opportunity to see diverse species. In particular, there's a focus on the Big Five and encounters with other popular animals, a trusted formula that enchants anyone on their first visit to Africa.

Most private game reserves offer the Big Five and can virtually guarantee guests see four of them, the elusive leopard often playing hard to find. Discover more than just wildlife during your stay, with a focus on all flora and fauna highlighted by extremely qualified guides.

Private game reserves have relatively small numbers of wildlife as the area they manage is usually not big enough to support an abundance of life. While this means limited encounters with big herds galloping across the landscape or the large prides evaluating their kingdom, game drives are intimate, and a quality and unique experience is guaranteed. Highly-trained guides are some of the best in their field and completely enhance your safari experience through listening, sharing, and educating at all times. The opportunity to spend quality time on a sighting will fascinate and illuminate all the private safari world has to offer.

Accessibility and Accommodation

A reserve's limited size and scope usually increases the emphasis on non-safari activities and the broader experience, boasting accommodation that is generally high-end and offering exceptional service. Swimming pools and lounge areas provide tranquil space throughout the day, while the night brings a romantic charm and quiet to the privacy of your room or tent.

Lodges and camps provide chalets or suites, luxury tents, and even a one-night treehouse stay in some areas. Central areas are lit up at night, with a campfire often the place to gather.

Access to the park is exclusively for guests at the reserve, so very few other game-drive vehicles will be spotted. Several private lodges and camps are found within the reserves, with mutual respect for other establishments and wildlife.

The intimate safari is appealing, with a maximum of six guests seated in enclosed 4x4 overland vehicles in East Africa and open 4x4 vehicles seen mostly on Southern African game drives. Most reserves have private airstrips, allowing quick access and a smooth and exciting start to a quality safari.

Why Safari in a Private Game Reserve?

A private game reserve is the ultimate in a quality, private, and luxury safari experience. Escape to a world far from the daily grind and enjoy exceptional service levels and captivating activities in Africa’s wild. Get to know your guide during your stay and leave truly feeling like part of the family. There are many lodges and camps to choose from, with accommodation options ranging from intimate to moderately-sized and larger hotel-style setups, there are a plethora of options to create an ideal custom safari in a private game reserve.

Smaller groups or fellow guests mean at times you will truly feel like you are the only ones there. The opportunity to take romance to the next level is definitely possible on a private game reserve safari. Experience intimate walking safaris, a night in a treehouse perhaps, and the chance to spend as long as you want on an animal sighting. The private reserves work well for specialized safaris, such as photography or birding groups.

Top Private Game Reserves to Visit:

  • Cottars 1920, Kenya
  • Khwai Private Game Reserve, Botswana
  • Ongava Private Game Reserve, Namibia
  • Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve, South Africa
  • Kapama Private Game Reserve, South Africa

Discover Your Preferred Safari Destination

Sabi-Sands Private Game Reserve, South Africa

Sabi-Sands Private Game Reserve, South Africa

One common thread you will find, no matter where you choose to go on safari, is that the wildlife comes first. Conservation is held high and through thoughtfully established lodges and camps, bringing amazing animal sightings and experiences to you is not just possible, but a dream come true.

Explore our African safari travel guide for more ideas and information, or our collection of African safari tours to inspire your custom trip.

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