Many African protected areas (PAs) are not functioning effectively. We reviewed the performance of Zambia's PA network and provide insights into how their effectiveness might be improved. Zambia's PAs are under-performing in ecological, economic and social terms. Reasons include: a) rapidly expanding human populations, poverty and open-access systems in Game Management Areas (GMAs) resulting in widespread bushmeat poaching and habitat encroachment; b) underfunding of the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) resulting in inadequate law enforcement; c) reliance of ZAWA on extracting revenues from GMAs to cover operational costs which has prevented proper devolution of user-rights over wildlife to communities; d) on-going marginalization of communities from legal benefits from wildlife; e) under-development of the photo-tourism industry with the effect that earnings are limited to a fraction of the PA network; f) unfavourable terms and corruption which discourage good practice and adequate investment by hunting operators in GMAs; g) blurred responsibilities regarding anti-poaching in GMAs resulting in under-investment by all stakeholders. The combined effect of these challenges has been a major reduction in wildlife densities in most PAs and the loss of habitat in GMAs. Wildlife fares better in areas with investment from the private and/or NGO sector and where human settlement is absent. There is a need for: elevated government funding for ZAWA; greater international donor investment in protected area management; a shift in the role of ZAWA such that they focus primarily on national parks while facilitating the development of wildlife-based land uses by other stakeholders elsewhere; and new models for the functioning of GMAs based on joint-ventures between communities and the private and/or NGO sector. Such joint-ventures should provide defined communities with ownership of land, user-rights over wildlife and aim to attract long-term private/donor investment. These recommendations are relevant for many of the under-funded PAs occurring in other African countries.