The effects of management on ecosystem diversity, structure and function must be understood for the sustainable integration of conservation and development. A potential source of experimentation and learning in ecosystem management is the array of private protected areas worldwide. Autonomous management systems can be seen as natural experiments, presenting an opportunity to explore the consequences of manipulating ecosystem properties. By quantifying management diversity and developing an index of management intensity we assessed the ecological correlates of private protected area management within the savannah biome in South Africa. Management intensity is positively correlated with herbivore density, predator density and ecotourism lodge density and negatively with herbivore community heterogeneity, reintroduction success and primary productivity at the local protected area scale. However, these trade-offs are tantamount to functional diversity as different management systems play unique roles in the regional socio-ecological and socio-economic systems, which range from animal production centres high in commercial value to low density areas that may sustain landscape processes. Furthermore, fenced private protected areas are necessary to safeguard rare species that cannot sustain viable populations in altered ecosystems. Thus, when considered at the regional scale, a private protected area network that constitutes a patchwork of management systems will create a coincident conservation and production landscape. We suggest that maintaining management heterogeneity will provide net benefits to biodiversity and potentially galvanize locally sustainable, wildlife-based economies.