A national park is an area designated and run by the government. In South Africa, many of these parks will fall under the governance of SANparks. They are areas of important natural beauty, fauna and flora and offer legal protection within park borders.
They do however promote use for recreation or education and National Parks will have infrastructures like roads and huts and are therefore accessible and easy to navigate. While each park is unique they will all offer different activities such as game drives, wilderness trails, guided walks, 4X4 trails, mountain biking and even golf just to mention a few.
The big and famous parks tend to steal the limelight but it is equally rewarding to visit some of the smaller and less known destinations which will invariably be quieter and offer a more intimate experience. The jewels in the SANParks crown are The Kruger National Park and Table Mountain National Park.
Wilderness areas are really the only truly “wild” places left. They are conservation areas that cover tracts of bushveld, forest and mountain that are pristine and virtually untouched by man.
They allow the area to evolve in as natural a state as possible and are protected by law. There are no roads, no development and no marked trails. It is just you and the wild and accommodation usually falls into the rustic, basic and camping variety. Some of the most well-known of these wilderness areas in South Africa are the Cederberg Wilderness Area, the Groot Wintershoek Wilderness Area and the Mkhomazi Wilderness Area.
Needless to say, wilderness areas are not for everyone. The extreme nature of the experience is not for the faint of heart or those who prefer the comfort of lodges and more well-trodden pathways. But for those who want to nestle shoulder to shoulder with the great outdoors, this is a full immersion activity, just you and the wild.
Game Reserves (game park) vs Nature Reserves
A Nature Reserve (bio-reserve, preserve, conserve or natural reserve) is an important area, set aside for the value of its fauna and or flora. It could also refer to an area of geological or other special interest like biomes and ecosystems. Ultimately they are managed for the purpose of conservation and can be designated either privately or by the relevant provincial government. A good example is the Kogelberg Nature Reserve just outside of Cape Town.
A Game Park or Game reserve, on the other hand, exists specifically for the preservation of wild animals. In these areas, fauna like antelope, rhino and giraffes are protected. There are activities like hiking and game viewing but hunting may also be permitted. If hunting is prohibited then a Game Park can be classified as a Nature Reserve.
One of the most well-known game reserves in South Africa is the Pilanesberg Nature Reserve in the North West province. This reserve was set aside as a protected area before animals were introduced to the environment. It is today one of the most popular Game Parks in the country.
A Game Farm is quite different from any of the above categories. They are usually privately owned and run as a means to produce animals for resale, hunting and for meat, skin and horn. It is a carefully managed process where the breeding and culling of animals is combined with sports hunting.
That said, it is not exclusively a hunting enterprise and Game Farms may also render income streams through things like photographic safaris and even eco-safaris. Hunting wild animals is an extremely contentious issue with many varied opinions and complicated dimensions. If this does worry you and is not to your taste then be sure to ask specific questions before you visit.
Wildlife Sanctuaries and Trusts
In South Africa a Wildlife Sanctuary is a place set aside for the rescue and rehabilitation of animals, endangered or otherwise. Often these are fantastic places to get up close with animals that are only seen in the wild and so offer an educational-type experience. Volunteer opportunities abound and they can offer life-changing experiences.
While many animal sanctuaries do excellent work homing animals that cannot be returned to the wild as well as running excellent breeding programs, the governance and regulations around these institutions are quite blurry and open to abuse. Recently, for example, it has been shown that sanctuaries that offer lion cub petting also act as a supply chain for canned hunting. It is worth doing your research to make sure that you do not inadvertently support these nefarious activities.
Wildlife Trusts, on the other hand, are set up specifically for the animals and conservation. Interestingly their work often focuses on the animals and they seldom offer volunteer opportunities or visitor centres as exposure to humans often means that animals cannot be released back into the wild. One of the most successful Wildlife Trusts in Africa is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Founded in 1977 this organisation has grown into one of the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation programs in the world. They are considered to be pioneers in conservation and habitat protection in East Africa.
Before you go...
It is always a good idea to check where you will visit, what kind of establishment it is and what their policies are regarding game and wildlife. Don't be afraid to ask an expert travel consultant before you go to make sure you get exactly what you want out of your safari trip.