While protected areas are a centrepiece of conservation, populations of animals in protected areas can still be subject to considerable human influence. Conservation theory suggests that many species should live at lower densities at the periphery of protected areas compared with the core area. Similarly, but more specifically, species subject to exploitation are expected to have lower densities in areas close to human settlements compared with more remote areas. Drawing upon distributional data of eight large African herbivore species (buffalo Syncerus caffer, elephant Loxodonta africana, giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis, impala Aepyceros melampus, topi Damaliscus lunatus, warthog Phacochoerus africanus, waterbuck Kobus ellipsiprymnus and zebra Equus quagga) sampled using ground surveys in 1995 and 1996, and seven large herbivore species (the same species without impala) sampled using aerial surveys from 1987 to 2009, we fitted logistic regression models and used an information theoretic model selection approach to test these two hypotheses in an East African savannah national park subject to illegal hunting from outside. In the vast majority of herbivore species, occupancy was not substantially affected by being close to the edge of the park or in close proximity to human villages. Furthermore, population declines witnessed in this protected area were not reflected in reduced occupancy near park boundaries. We conclude that assumed distributional differences between peripheral and core parts of reserves are not necessarily supported by empirical evidence, and that population declines within reserves do not inevitably proceed from boundaries inwards.