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National Parks vs. Game Reserves: How Are They Different?

by Cris Puscas

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As you may already know, there are quite a few things to keep in mind when planning your African safari.

If you are keen on having an experience of a lifetime, one of the most important things to know in advance is to understand the differences between National Parks and Game Reserves.

That said, the majority of safari-goers are not aware of the differences. This can often lead to disappointment when their chosen safari doesn’t meet the expectations.

That’s why, in this article, we are sharing the most important differences between National Parks and Game Reserves. May they prove to be useful in choosing your ideal African safari.

National Parks

a game drive in a national park

Photo credit: Ultimate Africa Expeditions

National Parks are government-owned and managed. As such, they would need to adhere to rules and regulations for conservation and wildlife protection. Because of this, they are offering the most accessible way to experience the African wilderness.

National Parks are open to the public and generally have a good network of roads, trails, and a good range of accommodation. Self-catering options are also abundant, which can help keep the cost of your safari low.

However, the accessibility and affordability create a rather big influx of vehicles and visitors, which can hinder wildlife spotting. Day-trippers are permitted to enter National Parks. But when going game drives, the driver has to stick to the marked roads, as driving off-road is not permitted in the parks.

Some of the most popular national parks have more than 100 lodges within their limits. This can make for quite a crowded experience, regardless of how big the park is. At any wildlife sighting, chances are you’d have to wait your turn to observe the animals.

Travelers who love to explore on their own should know that self-drive safaris are only permitted in National Parks. As mentioned above, visitors need to abide by the strict rules and can’t drive off-road. Getting out of the vehicle is not permitted either.

But, if you want to get up close and personal with the wildlife, kindly note that guided bush walks are not permitted in National Parks. There are, however, notable exceptions where you can take a walk in the bush. For example, in Tanzania, walking safaris are permitted and run by a handful of operators in Serengeti National Park, Tarangire National Park, Katavi National Park, and Ruaha National Park.

In general, a safari in a National Park is more restrictive in terms of what you can experience. Because the National Parks have opening hours, you are not permitted to go on night game drives. And you need to be at the accommodation before it gets dark, thus also missing the chance to witness amazing sunsets.

However, some big National Parks may have private concessions that offer the same flexibility as Game Reserves, so you can experience the best of two worlds.


Game Reserves

guided bush walk on a game reserve

Photo credit: Selous Ngalawa Camp

Game Reserves are privately owned and offer their guests the possibility to escape the crowds that are typically associated with large National Parks.

Note that you may only enter a Game Reserve if you stay at one of the lodges within it. Therefore, day-trippers are not permitted to enter a reserve. As a result, the number of visitors allowed at any given time is kept relatively small.

This exclusivity, however, makes for a more expensive vacation.

Most lodges in Game Reserves use purposely built 4x4 jeeps that can handle the rough African terrain. Off-road driving is permitted, and your guide and driver will get you in the best place to have a mesmerizing wildlife encounter.

Moreover, private Game Reserves don’t have closing hours, so you may linger well after the sunset and go on a night drive. This enables the visitors to get a “full experience” and increases the chance to see certain animals in action, such as the elusive leopard which is active after the sun goes down. 

Guided bush walks are also permitted in Game Reserves. You may go on a short walk close to the lodge or a longer one spanning some good hours – complete with a meal in the bush – or you can even spend several days on the trails.

In general, there are fewer safari tours taking place in Game Reserves, which allows visitors to freely experience the African wilderness.

If you choose a Game Reserve that’s adjacent to a National Park, you are allowed to also access the park, enabling you experience both options.


So, which one should you choose for your safari?


There are many factors to consider when choosing between a National Park and a Game Reserve.

First of all, you need to decide whether you are willing to pay more for exclusivity and freedom.

If you are looking for a unique safari experience, you should book a lodge in a Game Reserve. You’ll likely have more intimate encounters with wildlife.

Couples going on their honeymoon who want to be pampered and enjoy high-end accommodation should definitely stay at a lodge in a Game Reserve. If you dream of a romantic sunset followed by a dinner in a bush, this is your best bet.

If, however, you are looking to save money, cater for yourself, and maybe even prefer to self-drive, it’s better to choose a National Park.

Do note that National Parks offer a variety of accommodation options, from affordable campsites to high-end lodges and anything in between but the activities you can do during your stay are limited.

You are likely not able to go on a bushwalk in a National Park and the wildlife encounters are more fleeting. In many cases, you may end up scrambling to get a good photograph thanks to the many vehicles waiting for their turn at the wildlife encounter.

Don’t want to choose? You may certainly opt to experience both and, as mentioned prior, you can do so by staying in a private conservancy adjacent to a National Park.

On a budget? No worries, you can still experience a wildlife trip of a lifetime on an affordable safari in Africa.

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