National Parks or Private Reserves?
Updated: May 15, 2018
When planning a trip to Africa, National Parks and Private Reserves will feature heavily on most peoples itineraries but, what's the difference and how will it impact on your safari experience?
National Parks are managed by local or national government who are responsible for the parks' maintenance, protection of the wildlife and visitor safety. In the vast majority of National Parks and Reserves across Africa this means that the number of visitors are not restricted, and the safari experience is therefore open to everyone.
The benefits of this are that entry costs are significantly lower than their private alternatives and that self-drive safaris are possible, giving visitors the freedom to explore at their own pace. However, self-drive within the park and reserve boundaries are restricted to the road network, and also between set hours – normally sunrise to sunset.
Regardless of whether you are self-driving, part of a group tour or in a game viewing vehicle from a local lodge you will almost certainly come across other vehicles, particularly at waterholes and animal sightings. At peak season the number of vehicles crowding and pushing to get the ideal view can make even the largest of spaces seem a little claustrophobic!
Private Reserves and Conservancies, as you can probably guess, are under the control of an entity which is independent of the government, such as a lodge, and they can therefore dictate their own rules.
Typically this results in a more exclusive safari experience, where it is possible to get away from the crowds and take part in additional activities. Only the game viewing vehicles belonging to the lodges situated in the conservancy or reserve are allowed to drive on the land so there aren't any self-drive opportunities. However, unlike in their "National" counterparts, the rules restricting where and when vehicles can drive do not apply so your guides can drive off road in search of wildlife. Guided bush walks and horseback safaris are also available in some private reserves.
Private Reserves are particularly good if you must visit a region at a time of year which is not so good for game viewing, such as the wet season, because they are usually smaller with fewer inaccessible areas and therefore finding the wildlife is easier.
Bear in mind that the cost of staying within a private lodge can vary far more than the National parks and reserves, depending upon the quality of the accommodation, location and wildlife.
Some notes specific to Namibia and Botswana:
Namibia - The term "conservancy" can get a little confusing in Namibia in comparison to other parts of Africa because they are run specifically by local community groups and can cover huge areas, but do not have physical boundaries such as fences. In addition, the majority of people living within a conservancy continue to work, herding livestock, but they set aside a proportion of their common land specifically for wildlife. The conservancy system was introduced to allow Namibians to benefit from the country's wildlife through tourism and hunting. This in turn benefits the wildlife because it is seen as an asset to be protected.
The net results for travellers in Namibia are, A) that staying at a conservancy is a great way to "give back" and help to conserve wildlife in unprotected areas; but wildlife is not guaranteed because, without boundaries, it is free to migrate away. So do your research. B) In most cases the standard of accommodation available and service given can be a bit rough and ready so don't expect 5 stars.
Botswana - As mentioned above "National" parks and reserves can get crowded in some places, particularly at peak times of the year. Using the combination of a permit system for entry and limited lodging and camping capacity, Botswana successfully regulates visitor numbers to prevent this from happening.
As a visitor this means that you can spend significant time in the national parks
without bumping into another vehicle, but it also means that a visit is rather more complicated and costly and requires a significant lead time to organise.
So, National Parks or Private Reserves? In our view it's best to get a good mix of both in an itinerary. National Parks offer iconic experiences in massive landscapes while Private Reserves save time and can (almost) guarantee wildlife sightings.