What’s the biggest national park in the world? Great question, and one that’s not actually very easy to answer. The issue comes with the definition of what a national park actually is, a topic we explain in some detail further down the page.
The below list of the world’s largest national parks covers all areas of protected, recreationally accessible land in the world – including marine reserves, transnational parks (where bordering national parks from two or more countries have combined into one protected area), and ‘national monuments’ in the US (areas similar to national parks, but created from land controlled by the federal government and by proclamation of the president). We have a separate article that lists the countries with the most national parks, and most land given over to national parks.
So, without further ado – but with the above caveats in mind – here are our candidates for the largest national parks in the world:
The world’s 15 largest national parks
1. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, US (Hawaii): 1,510,000 km sq
The largest national park in the world is Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It was established by Presidential Proclamation in 2006 and encompasses over 1.5 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean – an area larger than all the national parks of the United States combined.
The name Papahānaumokuākea commemorates the union of Papahānaumoku and Wākea, two honoured Hawaiian ancestors. The area is considered sacred by native Hawaiians – a place from which all life springs, and where spirits return to after death.
With 2,200 km of coast around coral islands, shoals, and banks, the area hosts a staggering diversity of coral, fish, birds, marine mammals, many endemic to the Hawaiian archipelago.
2. Northeast Greenland National Park, Greenland: 972,000 km sq
The Northeast Greenland National Park was created in 1974, then expanded in 1988 to its present size, making it the largest land national park in the world. If Northeast Greenland National Park were a country it would be the 31st largest country in the world – in between Egypt and Tanzania.
Wildlife in the park includes plenty of mammals, including around 40% of the world’s total population of musk oxen. In addition, there are arctic fox, stoat, collared lemming, and arctic hare, with many polar bears and walrus found around the coastal regions, and a wide variety of seal and whale species in the surrounding waters.
3. The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Angola: 519,912 km sq
Coming in at twice the size of the United Kingdom, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area lies in the river basins of the Kavango and Zambezi, and stretches across five Southern African countries – Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Highlights of the park include the Okavango Delta (the world’s largest inland delta) and the awe-inspiring Victoria Falls, though the whole park is richly endowed with a diversity of wildlife-dense ecosystems that make it one of the best places in the world for enjoying a safari.
4. Phoenix Islands Protected Area, Republic of Kiribati: 408,250km sq
The Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA) is a huge expanse of marine and land ecosystems in the Southern Pacific Ocean, surrounding the Kiribati group of islands known as Phoenix Island Group. The isolation of the area means that PIPA is a crucial habitat for migratory species as they traverse the Pacific Ocean, and as such is on the UNESCO World Heritage List
Alongside 14 seamounts presumed to be underwater extinct volcanoes, PIPA has approximately 800 known animal species, including around 200 coral species, 500 fish species, 18 marine mammals, and 44 species of birds.
5. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Australia: 344,400 km sq
Located off the coast of Queensland in North-Eastern Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system – made up of 900 islands and almost 3,000 individual reefs stretching for over 2,00 kilometers. The reef is so large and looks so distinct from the air that it can be seen from space.
The size and location of the reef make it home to an incredible array of sea life – over 1,500 fish species, 125 species of sharks and rays, 30 whale species, 17 species of sea snake, six turtle species and a large dugong population, as well as plenty of giant saltwater crocodiles. More than 5,000 molluscs have been recorded, along with 400 species of hard and soft coral. It’s due to this biodiversity that the Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Site, and one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
6. Galapagos Marine Reserve, Ecuador: 133,000 km sq
Aside from being one of the world’s largest marine reserves, thanks to its position on the equator the Galapagos Marine Reserve is also one of the most biologically diverse marine areas in the world. The reserve lies 1,100 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador and covers 133,000 square kilometers of Pacific Ocean around the Galapagos Islands.
The reserve is made up of several different terrains including underwater volcanoes, mountains, cliffs and coral below sea level, and wetlands and lagoons at sea level. These ecosystems are home to over 2,900 recorded animal species, including whales, dolphins, albatrosses, sharks, sea lions, penguins, fur seals, rays, cormorants, marine iguanas, sea turtles, and tropical fish.
7. The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, South Africa, Mozambique & Zimbabwe: 99,800 km sq
The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) links together a number of national parks that border the countries of South Africa (Kruger National Park), Mozambique (Limpopo National Park), Zimbabwe (Gonarezhou National Park, Manjinji Pan Sanctuary and Malipati Safari Area).
GLTP comprises a huge area of the lowland savannah bisected by the Lebombo Mountains and includes five major river systems. All of this terrain is home to an incredible 500 bird species, as well as at least 147 mammals, 116 reptiles, 49 species of fish and 34 species of frogs, and makes for one of the world’s premier safari destinations.
8. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, US (Alaska): 78,051 km sq
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in north-eastern Alaska came into being in 1980 and is the largest national wildlife refuge in the US. The refuge supports the most diverse collection of animal and plant life found in the Arctic Circle, where the northern coast consists of the barrier islands, river deltas, coastal lagoons, and salt marshes, all providing habitats for migratory waterbirds and shorebirds.
The interior of the reserve is home to herds of caribou, muskoxen, and migratory birds – including flocks of tens of thousands of snow geese which stopover during September to feed, before migrating south. US Congress recently voted to open ANWR to oil drilling, meaning its future is currently uncertain.
9. Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, Canada: 77,538 km sq
The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Alaska is a coastal plain covering the delta of Alaska’s two largest rivers – the Yukon and Kuskokwim – and extending to the Bering Sea, incorporating some nearby volcanic islands.
The refuge is rich in wildlife and supports one of the largest concentrations of waterbirds in the world. The narrow strip of coast is the most productive goose nesting habitat in Alaska, while the drier uplands are inhabited by brown and black bears, caribou, moose, wolves, coyote, lynx and musk oxen. The refuge is also home to around 25,000 Yup’ik Eskimos living in village settlements on a subsistence lifestyle.
10. Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Canada: 61,765 km sq
The Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary is the largest protected area in Canada, established in 1961 to protect the largest variety of geese found in any North American nesting area.
Since its inception – and because of its size – the sanctuary has become an important area for the many other species of migratory birds and wildlife it supports. This includes over 2 million white geese (over 90% of the world’s Ross’s goose and 8% of the Canadian snow goose), tundra swan, brand, and many species of waterfowl, shorebirds and land birds.
11. Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania: 54,600 km sq
Named after the great explorer and hunter Frederick Courtney Selous, the Selous Game Reserve is located in southern Tanzania and is Africa’s largest game reserve –three times the size of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and twice the size of the Serengeti National Park.
The reserve is relatively unimpacted by human activity and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 due to the diversity of the wildlife. This includes one of the most significant concentrations of elephant and black rhinoceros in Africa, alongside high numbers of cheetah, giraffe, crocodile, and hippo.
12. Wrangell-St Elias National Park & Preserve, US (Alaska): 53,321 km sq
Wrangell St. Elias National Park is the largest National Park in the United States – around six times the size of Yellowstone National Park – and rises from sea level up to 18,008 feet at the peak of Mount St Elias, second highest mountain in the US.
Four major mountain ranges converge in Wrangell, meaning a wide variety of natural features including mountain peaks, glaciers, volcanoes, rivers, and boreal forests. Roughly 70% of the park is designated and managed as wilderness.
13. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana: 52,000 km sq
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) is an unforgiving, harsh terrain covering a large swathe of central Botswana. It’s still relatively inaccessible and remote, with very little human impact – only a handful of visitors each year. Whilst it’s essentially a desert, there are grasslands that make it home to wildlife species including giraffes, cheetahs, wild dogs and hyenas, and wild dogs. For a remote safari where you’re all but guaranteed to be on your own with the wildlife, CKGR is pretty hard to beat!
14. Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia: 49,768 km sq
Namibia’s largest national park at a whopping 49,000km sq, the Namib Naukluft National Parl in the Namib Naukluft desert is one of the most intensely studied – and oldest – deserts on earth. Made up of mountains, sand seas, moonscapes, and riverbeds, each morning and evening the sun paints the never-ending dunes around Sossusvlei in dramatic hues and shadows – a sight not to be missed.
Most of the park is uninhabited, but there has been a human presence since early Stone Age man passed through, leaving behind stone hand axes. These days the park provides very occasional hunting grounds for the San, and a permanent base for the 300 or so Topnaar people in 13 small villages along the lower Kuideb River.
15. Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada: 44,807 km sq
Last but not list in this list of world’s largest national parks is Wood Buffalo National Park – Canada’s largest national park, established in 1922 to protect the last free-roaming herds of wood bison. In 1983 is was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the biological diversity of the Peace-Athabasca Delta – one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world – including one of the only known natural nesting sites of the whooping crane.
Other wildlife in the park include wolves, moose, black bears, and beavers.
Map of the world’s largest national parks
What exactly is a national park?
A true ‘national park’ is defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), who declared in 1969 that a national park is a relatively large area of land with these characteristics:
- One or several ecosystems not materially altered by human exploitation and occupation, where plant and animal species, geomorphological sites and habitats are of special scientific, educational, and recreational interest or which contain a natural landscape of great beauty;
- The highest competent authority of the country has taken steps to prevent or eliminate exploitation or occupation as soon as possible in the whole area and to effectively enforce the respect of ecological, geomorphological, or aesthetic features which have led to its establishment; and
- Visitors are allowed to enter, under special conditions, for inspirational, educative, cultural, and recreative purposes.
In 1971 IUCN subsequently expanded on the above criteria to attempt to clarify further what a national park is:
- Minimum size of 1,000 hectares within zones in which protection of nature takes precedence
- Statutory legal protection
- Budget and staff sufficient to provide sufficient effective protection
- Prohibition of exploitation of natural resources qualified by such activities as sport, hunting, fishing, the need for management, facilities, etc.
So, strictly speaking, a national park should meet these 7 ICUN criteria. However, in many countries national parks do not adhere to the IUCN definition, while some areas which adhere to the IUCN definition are not designated by governments as national parks.
So that’s the list of largest natonal parks in the world. What do you think – any that surprise you? Please let us know in the comments section below!
Interested in reading more about more about national parks in Africa? We have a section on the SafarisAfricana dedicated to both reviews of individual national parks, and overviews of national parks in all countries across East and Southern Africa.
We’ve also put together this rather popular post on the largest national parks in Africa.
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