African Safari Destination Types
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National park, private concession, game reserve? The repertoire of terms can be baffling, yet they do offer different experiences. National parks are a country's flagship protected areas, filled with unrivaled animal abundance and no resident people. Then there's national reserves and international conservation areas, often hidden gems amongst Africa's safari destinations, places where wildlife and locals coexist. Private concessions share unfenced boundaries with national parks and belong to an area's broader ecosystem; being private means there's fewer restrictions on activities and the proximity to animals enhances the intimacy. Private game reserves are smaller and standalone.
Why the Different Categories?
Planning an African safari opens up dozens of new phrases and ideas. For a first-time visitor, the glossary of terms can be overwhelming. Why is a national park a national park? Is the safari different if you're in a private concession? These categories are completely independent of an area's habitat, the core factor of the type of wildlife you are likely to see. Predominantly an administrative division, the categories are based on how a safari destination is managed. There are keen differences between government and privately managed areas, both in the scale of the safari and the day-to-day experience. These categories also dictate the type of experience and activities available, while also determining whether the area is purely for wildlife or shared between resident people and wild animals.
Overview of the Types of Safari Destination
From gargantuan national parks to tiny private game reserves, Africa has hundreds of potential safari destinations. How they have been gazetted into wildlife areas makes a difference to the safari experience. There is no definitive premier choice. There is also no absolute rule about how a destination is called. Subtle differences are found between countries but in general, there're four types of classification.
- 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 public 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 game reserves and conservation areas 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 driving off trail and alternative 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 with a national park or national reserve 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 rare, and there's a blend of scale and intimacy, one that comes with a high-end price. Some of these are seasonal destinations, dependent on wildlife movement.
- Private game reserves offer an intimate and exclusive safari experience, usually within a relatively small, fenced area. A varied program of safari activities is encouraged. Wildlife abundance and wilderness feel vary considerably across the many dozens of private game reserves in Africa. These are privately managed with little outside influence, and there's a huge disparity in quality Some private game reserves share much closer characteristics with a private concession and can provide the continent's finest safari experiences, others are only one step above a zoo.
A multi-day trip that combines safari destinations enables you to experience the different styles. It allows you to blend the scale with the 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.
Government managed area exclusively for wildlife.
National park status provides the ultimate marker of conservation, one funded and protected by the national government. Many of the continent's large and world-famous safari destinations fall into this category, like the Serengeti and Kruger. They can often cover gargantuan areas that dwarf European countries, but also preserve small wildlife havens. Gazetting a national park has huge implications as it makes the area an exclusive realm for wildlife. People can't inhabit the land, and there are various tensions across the continent as tribal groups have been moved from their traditional lands, even though they have coexisted with the wildlife for centuries. There's also multiple success stories of national park status removing and preventing the encroachment of industrial settlements. Conservation is the rationale behind creating a national park as the area becomes a relatively uninterrupted space for wildlife to flourish.
Such long-standing commitment to conservation helps wildlife flourish, and national parks have an unbeatable abundance of wild animals. The numbers are staggering, and in some national parks, mammal numbers are counted in millions. Even small less-famous national parks have a phenomenal profuseness. These areas roll to a very natural rhythm. Wildlife moves freely. 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 be standing empty when visited, with nothing to see but scorched savannah and the odd exotic bird. Skilled guides will need to follow seasonal clues to locate the places of unrivaled wildlife density.
Natural rhythms also dictate the species that can be found. There are very few national parks that will contain the complete list of animals you want to see. For example, there may be close to 2 million zebras and wildebeests in the Serengeti, but in an area bigger than some US states, you'll be incredibly fortunate to find one of the 30 or so rhino. Chobe National Park has close to 100,000 elephants and staggering numbers of giraffes. Kruger has astonishing rhino and lion numbers. But neither has everything. Evolution continues at its own pace, often providing unforgettable memories that center on a handful of dominant species. Habitats and areas within a national park can provide different wildlife experiences, so staying for two or three days helps you look past the park's premier highlight to discover its less abundant species. Spending more time ensures you can really discover a park's diversity.
Accessibility and Accommodation
National parks charge an entrance fee that's used for conservation and maintaining park facilities. 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 trucks, particularly in the areas that are most accessible on a single day safari. This feeling of excessive safari trucks peaks at any widely suggested “best time to visit.” Those spending more than a day can usually escape the crowds. National parks are more than big enough for all the safari trucks and visitors; the challenge comes because a vast majority of these visitors crowd around the same wildlife-abundant snippet of the park.
A mix of public and private accommodation is usually available. Public campsites make national parks an affordable choice for anyone on a budget. Private lodges and camps pay large conservation fees for the privilege of their position within the park. However, this privilege rewards visitors with a total immersion in a park's abundance. Wildlife usually moves uninhibitedly through the park, and you'll hear the sounds throughout the night: a lion's roar, buffalo hooves on your verandah, elephants trumpeting, and ungulates grazing beside the tent. Camps and lodges are also located on the fringes of the park, giving a sense of the wilderness while remaining outside the national park area, meaning slightly less-expensive accommodation.
Exploring a delicate habitat without making a lasting impact isn't easy. National park authorities are always searching for the testing balance between fulfilling visitors' expectations and not interrupting nature's flow. Safari activities are usually restricted and carefully controlled. Game drives are the norm. These must keep to designated trails as off-trail driving is prohibited. So when you see a leopard in a tree, you must admire it from the trail, perhaps some 50meters away. A driver caught violating the rules to get you closer is likely to end up with a park ban and unemployment. Wildlife viewing can't always be intimate in a national park. On the safari you must respect that you're entering their realm, exploring their territory.
The inherent wildness and conservation focus also restricts the type of safari activities that are available. Predominantly, safari is done on game drives. The density of predators makes being on foot dangerous, especially if thousands of tourists were to start doing daily walking safaris. Nighttime driving is also usually prohibited. 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. It's not a universal rule though. Some of the lesser-known and lesser-visited national parks offering varied activities as there's less demand on the landscape.
- Chobe National Park in Botswana is home to Africa's greatest concentration of elephants.
- South Africa's Kruger National Park is where over half the world's rhino population can be found.
- Namibia's flagship safari destination is Etosha National Park, where wildlife is always intimately spotted around the desert's waterholes.
Government managed area that used by wildlife and resident people.
While the terminology varies across the continent, each country also has gazetted conservation areas that are managed by the government. These could be called national reserves, national game reserves, game reserves, wildlife concessions, conservation areas, or transfrontier conservation areas.
The important distinction to a national park is that they aren't afforded the highest level of conservation status. This means that local people can inhabit the same area as the wildlife. Don't expect bustling towns or industrial warehouses. These remain hostile stretches of wilderness, places that aren't well suited for human life. Instead, they are home to Africa's specialists, the tribes that have forged a life amongst the wildlife and live within the often harsh conditions. It's where you'll find encounters with iconic tribes like the Maasai, Samburu, or San. Conservation protection does protect 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 help preserve a tiny slice of land that was slowly getting encroached upon by human development. Many conservation areas and reserves are integral in both 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 countries. In all cases, they can be celebrated as a country's commitment to conservation. Understanding why an area is not given national park status is complicated. Often the reasons are financial. It's expensive for a country to designate such a large proportion of its available land purely for wildlife. The rights of local people are also a consideration as creating a national park would mean removing tribes from their homelands. Kenya and Botswana offer good examples of a country using national reserves to maintain the equanimity between tribes and wildlife.
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 ground is scorched. Unusual and endangered species may find a haven within a national reserve, flourishing within a protected natural habitat. There's usually a diverse collection of the smaller mammals, those that have an easier relationship with any resident communities. This allows you to go beyond notions of the big five and admire the dramatic variety of life that's evolved on Africa's wild plains.
However, there are exceptions. Some national reserves are as abundant as anywhere on the continent. Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve isn't 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 both preserving the landscape and protecting their own property. Visits to local tribes add a cultural element to a safari, a new slice of heritage revealed amongst the sounds of the bush.
Accessibility and Accommodation
National reserves 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 from beside the main road is sometimes as memorable as witnessing one up-close in a famed national park. Like national parks, this open public access can make a national game 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 accommodation can be found in these reserves and conservation area, some of them provided by the 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 accommodation with a crackling fire keeping away the scent of hyenas.
These conservation areas are shared realms, and there's a supreme local understanding of how to coexist with nature's wildest characters. This often translates into thrilling walking safaris, with a local guide (often barefoot) unraveling the clues within an environment. Spotting a buffalo print in the mud isn't challenging; but a local tracker will also 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's often a little more choice than in a national park. Some conservation areas specialize in safari's bespoke activities, like canoe trips, horse riding, or cycling.
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. If only one driver went off the trail, then the long-term impact would be negligible. If hundreds of drivers did it on a regular basis, then a habitat could soon disintegrate. Like in national parks, it's rare that you'll be able to go off the trail, regardless of the safari activity. Human settlements and activity make the conservation balance even more precarious, and damaging one area make the competition for natural resources even more intense. Staying on the trail can lead to brief moments of frustration – you see something, and you want to get closer. But these moments are brief as going on safari imbues an indelible respect for these raw natural landscapes.
- In Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area you'll see elephants and lions roaming amongst Maasai herding their cattle.
- Kenya's Samburu National Reserve is a sublime place to walk with Samburu guides through a landscape of pristine wilderness.
- Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve was originally gazetted to provide an area for San bushmen to continue their traditional lifestyles; it's now one of Africa's largest and most impressive safari destinations.
Privately managed areas within a larger ecosystem, often sharing unfenced boundaries with a national park.
Again, the terminology varies across the continent. These private safari areas can be called concessions, conservancies, and game reserves. It's unquestionably confusing. The essential difference to note is between a privately managed area that's part of a broader ecosystem and a private game reserve that is a standalone area amongst a landscape. In most of Africa, these areas are known as private concessions. Kenya refers to them as wildlife conservancies while some of Southern Africa's private concessions are merely known as private game reserves. Confused? Irrespective of the name, the central features are that these are privately managed areas offering exclusive experiences within a broader wildlife ecosystem.
Sharing unfenced boundaries with national parks and reserves, private concessions are an integral part of a broader conservation area. They enable the free passage of wildlife within a wider ecosystem, helping protect migration routes and support 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. Areas outside governmental jurisdiction were prone to poaching, illegal logging, and the encroachment of industry. They were buffer zones difficult to control. Across Africa, these buffer zones are now an essential part of the ecosystem, helping extend the conservation area over larger and larger areas.
Some of these private concessions were historically hunting concessions, something that makes their transformation into leading conservation examples even more impressive. While hunting concessions are still found in Africa, they are being gradually phased out in return for this more supportive form of tourism. Funds for conservation come from the tourists who stay in the concession. An uninterrupted natural habitat attracts more wildlife, enhancing the appeal to tourists, and gradually bringing in further funds for conservation. In some parts of the continent, this private conservation method has been more effective and efficient than in the neighboring national park. Slowly, over the decades, wildlife has come to be centered upon the concession rather than broader park.
Private concessions often share a national park or reserve's abundance: 50-strong elephant herds rumbling through the bush, forests alive with the scent of leopards, pools dominated by the barging antics of hippos. Every ecosystem has its subtleties, and many have their distinct habitats. The landscape of a private concession is part of this, perhaps a single habitat that a few specific species are drawn towards; giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, maybe an expanse of olive trees that houses huge baboon troops. Many private concessions have become the premier place within a huge ecosystem to see one or two species, particularly the more elusive predators and lesser-seen ungulates.
Or maybe the concession is a buffer area, one where habitats collide, and there's always a tense interaction between herds as they cross. The concession becomes a crossroads, an area of antagonism as the wanderers pass the residents and the predators wait in their favorite hideout. Water is often a prime piece of the concession's landscape, even if it's a dried-up riverbed. It's the fundamental allure that means wildlife keeps returning, from elephants on the march to springbok waiting for the rains. Often, the accommodation is built around this water source, providing uninterrupted views over everything that comes to drink.
Private concessions are relatively devoid of tourists and noisy safari vehicles. In many cases, they're almost completely devoid of other tourists. Wildlife isn't interrupted. 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. Like national parks, private concessions are home to the large numbers and the diverse species, with each concession tending to have its celebrated specialism. Seasonal changes often mark the concession, both attracting the nomads and seeing an exodus of wildlife towards other parts of the ecosystem.
Accessibility and Accommodation
Private concessions combine the abundant wildlife of a national park with the intimacy of varied safari activities. The experiences are further enhanced by a concession's exclusivity. In most cases, access is limited to the guests that are staying at the lodges or camps within the concession. Some private concessions have just a single exclusive camp for a handful of 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're unlikely to see many other safari vehicles or visitors yet the concession retains a national park's raw sense of wilderness.
The exclusivity and intimacy are accompanied by a premium price. Private concessions are usually safari's most expensive preserve, and their unique offer is reflected in the price tag. Accommodation is high-end, and service befits the exclusivity of the experience. Some concessions even have an elite camp reserved for just two guests, a luxury honeymoon option and chance to completely escape from other people. Maintaining the exclusivity helps maintains the quality of the experience. A private concession couldn't support hundreds of vehicles or visitors at the same time. Many guests arrive by micro flight to an airstrip within the concession, spend a few days then depart by plane.
Safari is not restricted to the private concession. The unfenced borders provide an immediate movement from concession to national park. So while a concession's area may be small, game drives flicker between the private realm and the larger public space. This supports private concessions in becoming all-year-round destinations, as the safari can be tailored to the seasonal movements of animals. 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 range and intimacy of safari activities consistently place private concessions amongst Africa's finest safari experiences. While the wildlife sights are similar to the adjacent national park, a private concession provides an array of new angles. Walking safaris, horse riding, nighttime drives; the area is privately managed, and a mixed program of activities is encouraged, rather than merely offered. Safari activities tend to be guided by staff working for your lodge or camp, rather than a tour company. This is beneficial as guides have an incredibly detailed understanding of the area, enabling them to provide exhilarating activities safely. Spot the same bachelor buffalo herd in the same place every day, find Nile crocodiles at their typical sunbathing spot, inspects a rocky outcrop as it's the known realm of a lion pride. Within a woodland clearing the guide stops and patiently looks around. You can't see anything. But the guide knows that a cheetah regularly hides amongst these trees. It's this comprehensive knowledge, built over years of safari in the same area; that enhances the wildlife encounters.
Driving off road is allowed. Access to private concessions is restricted, so there's only a handful of vehicles on the landscape. Driving off the trail isn't as harmful when the landscape has time to recover. This opportunity to get off the trail delivers an elevated sense of intimacy. Spot a leopard in the tree and you can drive over until you're just a few meters away. Follow a herd as it cuts across the plains or get closer to hippos grazing out of the water. It's the same wildlife, except there's no barrier of distance or high grass. 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.
- Botswana's Linyanti Concession brings exclusivity to the Chobe experience and thrilling experiences on foot and at night.
- Lewa Wildlife Conservancy offers a wonderfully varied program of activities in Northern Kenya.
- Standing on the edge of the Serengeti, Grumeti Game Reserve offers exclusive safari activities with the great wildebeest migrations.
- Mala Mala and the Sabi Sands private game reserves are an area that share boundaries with Kruger National Park and provide astonishing encounters with predators and rhinos.
Some destinations that are known as private game reserves share the characteristics of a private concession, for example, Mala Mala in South Africa. This section refers to private game reserves that are standalone areas and not part of a broader wildlife ecosystem.
Private game reserves split opinions, ranging from the continent's great pioneers of conservation to commercial ventures detrimental to preserving wildlife in Africa. Some have a defined focus on conservation and may have played a crucial role in preserving a wildlife realm as an area has been irrevocably changed by human developments. Others have transported wildlife to a new area, placing different species in their natural habitat yet in an artificial manner. This can be an uncomfortable creation as wildlife is relocated to areas that are less attractive to them. But at the same time, some private game reserves have been major success stories in preserving some of Africa's endangered species, particularly the rhino. By moving the animals from large difficult to guarded habitats, private game reserves have been able to nurture an important species.
Private game reserves tend to be fenced. Usually, this is to prevent wildlife from escaping. This restricts animal movement, although some reserves have reintroduced endangered species back to larger national parks at a later date. It's here that the argument splits opinion. While the reserve can provide a safe haven for certain animals, it also interrupts the natural movement of wildlife. Reserves must also manage their resources and ensure that the landscape can be shared amongst the animal population. For example, supporting 20 elephants will require a huge amount of vegetation if the pachyderms aren't allowed to wander with the seasons. So having 20 elephants must be balanced against supporting the hundreds of other mammals that could browse in the same area.
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 the most famous animals. It's a trusted formula that enchants anyone on their first visit to Africa. Most game reserves offer the big five and can virtually guarantee seeing four of them, the exception being the leopard. For anyone on a short safari, this easy access to the big names brings charm to a vacation that's more focused on non-safari destinations. For those on longer safaris or return visitors to Africa, the quick snapshot of big mammals can't compensate for the limited sense of being in the wild.
Private game reserves have relatively small numbers of wildlife. Their area isn't big enough to support an abundance of life, especially of the big and famous vegetation-destroying animals. As such, it's difficult to admire the interactions between animals and herds. There might be 50 zebra, which by African standards is a diminutive number. While you might see rhino and elephant, there's only two or three of them. Don't expect to encounter the big herds galloping across the landscape or the large prides evaluating their kingdom. At the same time, finding all this wildlife is incredibly easy. A game drive can sometimes feel like a joining of the dots, skipping from animal to animal. It's something that can benefit the less adventurous, a short journey amongst the different animals without having to spend three hours bumping around the bush.
Accessibility and Accommodation
A reserve's limited size and scope usually increases the emphasis on non-safari activities and the broader experience. Accommodation is generally high-end, maximized to offer views over the reserve. Swimming pools and lounge areas provide tranquil space throughout the day. While luxurious, the lack of park conservation fees means the accommodation is generally cheaper than the equivalent standard in a national park of private concession. Access to the park is exclusively for guests at the reserve or those on trips organized by the reserve. Many private game reserves offer these day programs, allowing you to get a glimpse of a safari without spending the night within a reserve. It is only a glimpse, an experience that doesn't reveal Africa's landscapes in all their charm and immersive excitement.
As they're unable to offer the scale or abundance of other safari destinations, private game reserves focus on offering a varied program of activities, even for people who just visit for the day. Game drives are supplemented with safari on foot, horseback, cycle, or even ATV's in some destinations. Programs are usually flexible, and visitors can create their own itinerary. Spots within the landscape provide escapism and some unique experiences, especially for couples. For example, champagne lunches or moonlit dinners amongst the wild surroundings. In comparison to Africa's other destinations, it's these activities and the sense of luxury that make the overall experience especially memorable, rather than the wildlife on offer.
- Set within the Tuli Block in southern Botswana, Mashatu Game Reserve is Africa's largest private reserve and offers an experience that's much closer to being in a private concession.
- Home to a conservation program for Africa's lesser-seen cats, Okonjima Nature Reserve offers some exhilarating walking with San people and cheetahs.
- Opulent Thanda Game Reserve in South Africa is a place of decadent luxury for honeymooners seeking escapism.