Elephants in Manyeleti Game Reserve Limpopo South Africa

What is a private game reserve in Africa and what is the difference with a national park?

When planning a safari in Africa, especially for first-timers, it's good to know the difference between a private game reserve and a national park. This article will give an answer to the question 'what is a private game reserve?' and will explain the most important differences between a private game reserve and a national park, conservancy, or concession.

What is a private game reserve?

A private game reserve is a protected wildlife area that is privately owned and managed for the conservation of wildlife and their habitats. Private game reserves are often established and run by individuals or organizations with a strong interest in conservation and a desire to protect and preserve the natural environment.

What is the difference between a private game reserve and a national park?

A national park is land owned and managed by the government whereas a private game reserve is privately owned and managed; for example by the lodges that are located within the private game reserve. National parks are usually larger in size, with a larger number of wildlife and a more varied landscape than a private game reserve, conservancy, or concession. Private game reserves areless crowded and mostly only accessible to guests who are staying on the property. They tend to be more expensive than national parks with upmarket accommodation.

Big Five wildlife viewing in Limpopo Province South Africa

What is the advantage of safari in a private game reserve?

The most important advantage of staying in a private reserve is exclusivity. Here are a few examples of the exclusive safari experience a private game reserve offers:

  • A limited number of vehicles allowed at an animal sighting. This is animal friendly and offers a more exclusive wildlife experience.
  • Tend to take fewer passengers per vehicle.
  • Private reserves or conservancies offer more safari activities on their property, like a night game drive to spot nocturnal animals, guided walking safari to track animals on foot, and horseback riding. These activities are not allowed in most national parks.
  • Fine dining experience
  • Ethical off-road driving on a game drive to get closer to the animals for exclusive wildlife sightings, without disturbing them.

Mating lions on game drive while learning for safari guide

On safari in national parks - where you have to stay on designated roads - it can be frustrating to see animals in the far distance. Since the animals are wild, they are not always found next to the roads.

And you've probably also seen the videos of 15-20 vehicles gathering around a cheetah sighting in the Maasai Mara National Reserve or the lines of safari vehicles waiting for a river crossing during the Great Migration. In private game reserves, you won't find these crowds and at a wildlife sighting there's usually a maximum of 5 vehicles allowed.

Where are private game reserves located?

Private game reserves are typically found in areas with a diverse array of wildlife and ecosystems, such as savannas, grasslands, and forests. They are home to a wide range of animal species, including the Big Five and other large mammals, such as lions, giraffes, elephants, and rhinos, as well as smaller animals like antelopes, reptiles, and a variety of birds.

Iconic view of giraffe under a Balanite tree in the Maasai Mara

Many private game reserves in Africa are located next to national parks. More and more game reserves that border national parks are dropping their fences to increase the animal's habitat, which allows wildlife to roam freely between private reserves and public land. Other game reserves are still enclosed areas.

Private game reserves are often established on land that has been previously developed or used for other purposes, such as agriculture or ranching. In many cases, the land is restored and rehabilitated to create a habitat that is suitable for the conservation of wildlife. This also counts for concessions or conservancies, but there's still a difference between a private game reserve and a conservancy or concession. These last two are often owned by the government but privately managed.

Giraffes and Zebra Enonkishu Conservancy Kenya

Things to do in a private game reserve

There are often many things to do on safari in a private game reserve, such as wildlife viewing on a morning game drive and afternoon game drive, or even spotting nocturnal animals on a night game drive.

Baobabs in Mapesu Game Reserve in North Limpopo

Other activities that private game reserves offer are sundowners on beautiful locations within the reserve (for example on top of a hill with panoramic views), a boma dinner, a walking safari (also known as bush walk), wildlife photography, star photography in dark-sky areas, horse-back riding, cultural village visits, and sometimes even a boat safari.

Bush Walks Pafuri South Africa

Many lodges located within private game reserves also have a swimming pool where you can relax in between the game drives.

Tintswalo Safari Lodge Manyeleti Game Reserve

What is the goal of a private game reserve?

The goal of many private game reserves in Africa is to provide a protected environment for the conservation of wildlife and their habitats, as well as to promote education and understanding of the natural environment.

wildlife viewing in Welgevonden Private Game Reserve in Limpopo

Do private game reserves allow hunting?

Since the term 'game' and 'big five game animals' used to be hunting terms, a private game reserve can be related to hunting practices. While some reserves do allow (monitored) hunting, I'm happy that many private game reserves have chosen not to support this activity and I'm positive that more reserves will follow this movement.

masai mara rhino conservation

Stay in a private game reserve or national park?

For the best safari experience, I would advise adding a mix of national parks, private game reserves, and conservancies to your safari itinerary.

Great Wildebeest Migration Mara River Crossing

However a private game reserve offers a more exclusive safari experience, I can't deny that national parks often have good spots for animal viewing. National parks are protected by the government and due to their large size, they offer a varied landscape with many animal species.

Examples of amazing things to see on safari in Africa's national parks are the Great Wildebeest Migration in the Masai Mara and Serengeti.

Wildlife on Serengeti Balloon Safari activity

The Ngorongoro crater is not to be missed as it's a world on its own with a stunning landscape where you can find black rhinoceros, flamingos, lions, elephants, hippos, and much more amazing wildlife. The Kruger National Park in South Africa also has many cool spots to see wildlife up close.

wildlife viewing in Makuleke Concession Kruger NP

There are many private game reserves or conservancies across Africa, so it's hard to mention popular game reserves without forgetting one, but here I'll share a few:

  • Shamwari Private Game Reserve, South Africa
  • Samara Private Game Reserve in the Karoo, South Africa
  • Manyeleti Private Game Reserve in Limpopo, South Africa
  • Community-owned Makuleke Concession within the Kruger National Park
  • Welgevonden Private Game Reserve in Limpopo, South Africa
  • Thanda Private Game Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa
  • Manyoni Private Game Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa
  • Kitirua Conservancy, Amboseli, Kenya
  • Enonkishu Conservancy, Masai Mara, Kenya
  • Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya

Private Game Reserve vs. National Park: a summary

Private Game Reserve AfricaNational Park Africa
Privately ownedGovernment-owned
Privately managedGovernment managed
Fewer crowdsCrowded during peak season & at Big Five sightings
Upmarket/luxury (en-suite) lodgingBasic accommodation (camping/hut/cabin/chalet)
Usually more expensive than National Parks ($$$-$$$$$)Usually cheaper than Private reserves ($$-$$$)
Fine Dining, Bush dinner, or Private Boma dinner with good chefsRestaurants focused on mass tourism
Animal species depend on the locationAnimal species depend on the location
Ethical off-road driving allowed for better sightingsVehicles need to stay on designated roads
Guided game drive in a vehicle of the lodge, either a private vehicle or for a max. number of guests staying at the lodgeGame drive in your own vehicle (self-drive) or that of a tour company
More safari activities like horseback riding, night game drives, walking safarisMore restrictions in terms of activities before and after sunset. Night drives are mostly not allowed, occasionally national parks do offer them
Examples of private game reserves in South Africa: MalaMala Game Reserve, Sabi Sands Game Reserve, Shamwari Private Game Reserve, Samara Private Game Reserve, Manyeleti Private Game Reserve, Thanda Private Game Reserve, Welgevonden Game Reserve.Examples of National Parks in Africa: Kruger National Park, Addo Elephant National Park, and Mapungubwe in South Africa, Maasai Mara, Amboseli National Park and Samburu National Park in Kenya, South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, Serengeti National Park and Tarangire National Park in Tanzania.

wildlife viewing in Manyeleti Game Reserve South Africa

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