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National Parks vs Private Reserves – what’s the difference?

It’s probably something that’s come up in your research: some lodges and safaris take place in National Parks while others make us of Private Reserves or Concessions. In Kenya you’ll find the term Private Conservancies used as well – and of course you can find safari itineraries across Africa that combine the two concepts – a national park and a private reserve. So what’s the difference?

The distinction is pretty simple on paper: National Parks are entities owned and run by the state whereas a Private Reserve is privately owned and managed; a Private Concession implies that land – either within a national park or adjacent to it – has been leased from the state to a private operator and is run as an exclusive-use reserve. Fences between national parks and adjoining private reserves have been largely removed and wildlife wanders freely between them.

National Parks vs Private Reserves sightings

Typical private reserve sighting – in Botswana’s Khwai River concession.

The Kenyan Private Conservancies are large tracts of traditional Maasai land that border the state-run Masai Mara Reserve. Conservancies allow local communities to pool their land and resources to provide wildlife watching in return for social and economic improvement.

Maasai Community involved in Kenya's Private Concessions

Kenya’s private conservancies are run by local Maasai communities, a true immersion into their culture.

So far so good; but what’s the difference between the safari experience at each? Now it gets a bit more interesting.

Firstly, it’s important to note Africa’s National Parks have generally been around far longer than their private reserves. Established in the prime wildlife areas of the continent, national parks like the Serengeti, Kruger and Chobe deliver excellent wildlife watching, especially as they are often built around an animal migration or a big permanent river. National Parks are very often large which is a key feature of high bio-diversity, many are vital refuges for endangered animals such as wild dogs, rhinos and gorillas, and a few even have a good network of roads that makes them relatively easy self-drive destinations – Etosha National Park and the Kruger in particular.

Private boat safari

Going private usually means an exclusive-use safari experience – ideal for groups & families.

Their large size means that longer distances may have to be travelled to find animals, but it also means there will be more accommodation available. That’s good news for availability – especially last-minute – but it also implies there will be more visitors in national parks than in the private reserves. There’s no restriction on numbers of vehicles at a wildlife sighting which can be frustrating if you are at the back of the queue, and – because of this pressure of numbers – Africa’s national parks are run to fairly strict protocols.

Opening and closing times of the park, for example, are set, and activities offered in national parks are generally built around a vehicle or boat though some specialise in walking safaris. For safety and to protect the environment, drivers are not allowed to leave the road for wildlife sightings, and night-drives, although available in most national parks, are offered as an additional activity by your state-run lodge.

National Parks vs Private Reserves bush dinners

A lantern-lit runway with silverware, fine wine & a pop-up diner? It could only be a private reserve.

Private Reserves, Concessions and Conservancies are generally smaller than a national park and that has several consequences. It means wildlife can be easier to find, in the sense that it is more concentrated. This is especially true of the Kruger Park’s famous Private Reserves – the Sabi Sands for example – which deliver possibly the most successful Big Five viewing in Africa. Similar private reserves and concessions are found across Botswana, Namibia and Zambia, offering wildlife viewing as powerful as that in the national parks to which they adjoin.

Private Reserves are less crowded

Private reserves have far fewer vehicles operating & so are permitted to go off-road.

Private reserves have strict policies on development and infrastructure; there will only be limited accommodations here (Kenya’s private conservancies for example maintain a 350 acre/140 hectare per guest rule) and it is within these private entities that you’ll find the most luxurious of all safari accommodations, whether air-conditioned lodges or thatch-roofed camps. Limited accommodation means far other fewer people in the reserves – which are private anyway – but it does add pressure to booking them for the time of year you want.

Exclusivity in Private Reserves

Africa’s top lodges tend to be set in private reserves & concessions, adding to the exclusivity.

Perhaps the biggest difference between national parks and private reserves is in the activities that are offered. The private reserves are not open to the public or self-drivers which leaves you in the hands of an extremely knowledgeable driver/guide, operating to maximise your experience. These guides are allowed to drive off-road for exceptional sightings and conduct spot-lit night drives. You’ll find more opportunities for guided walking in private reserves – especially shorter nature walks during the day – and there are strict limits on how many vehicles may be at a sighting at a time to ensure there’s never any crowding.

Experience National Parks vs Private Reserves

Night drives can be part of any safari but are usually one of the activities offered in private reserves.

So which is better? That’s not so much the question: the choice you need to make is to match your expectation – and budget – with what’s available. Private reserves and the accommodation on them are usually more expensive than staying at state-run parks – you are, after all, paying for an exclusive-use experience. But they don’t always have what the national parks can deliver: Kenya’s Private Conservancies are great for general wildlife watching but there are herds of cattle there too, and you’ll need to drive to the state-run Masai Mara to see the great wildebeest migration when it’s in season.

National Parks usually deliver the iconic images: elephants lined up on Botswana’s Chobe River or with a Kilimanjaro background in Kenya’s Amboseli; Etosha National Park is where you’ll see packed herds of desert animals at water, the Ngorongoro Crater may give you the Big Five in one drive and the Serengeti National Park plays host to the wildebeest migration for most of the year.

National Parks vs Private Reserves activities

Choose a private reserve or concession if you’d like to add a safari walk to your range of activities.

But if you want a more intimate experience – certainly a more luxurious one – with more time to do what you want to do, and to enjoy a more varied range of activities, then going private is the way to go. And given that most destinations can offer you a choice of both, why not weave them together to get the best out of both worlds?

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