Ecology and other conservation sciences have largely been preoccupied with the establishment, number, size and the functions of nature conservation areas around the globe. Beyond these concerns, nature conservation areas mirror complex interrelationships between society and the environment, and how those relationships are, or should be managed in various contexts. These interrelationships cannot appropriately be understood within the confines of disciplinary boundaries; they require multi- and interdisciplinary perspectives. The aim of this article is to illustrate that various categories of nature conservation areas, including protected areas, embody ideas about nature and how it should be governed in changing socio-economic conditions. The article draws on examples from southern Africa to argue that significant turns in strategies for protecting nature were made during periods of political transformation. It concludes that the gradation of protected areas, as a group of conservation areas, reflects different ways in which human activities are incorporated or marginalised in these areas. These processes are contingent on sociopolitical conditions.