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Swaziland's wildlife makes spectacular comeback

Animal populations thrive thanks to tough anti-poaching legislation.

MILWANE WILDLIFE SANCTUARY, Swaziland — Lions and elephants used to roam freely across Swaziland, but excessive hunting and habitat lost to agriculture meant that for nearly a half century, the king of the jungle could only be found on the kingdom’s coat of arms.

Now, thanks to the efforts of one dedicated family and the personal protection of King Mswati III, wildlife is staging a remarkable comeback in one of southern Africa’s smallest countries.

From no natural reserves in the mid-1950s, Swaziland now counts six legally protected game areas. While neighboring South Africa loses dozens of rhinoceroses to poachers each year, Swaziland has not lost one since 1992 — a success attributed to strict legislation and law enforcement against poaching. In a sign of Swaziland’s newly found success in wildlife conservation, the country is now exporting animals to South Africa, including rhinoceroses to Kruger National Park.

Success was never assured. By mid-century, the last Swazi lion and elephant had come and gone, and only a few large mammals subsisted at Hlane, the hunting grounds of former King Sobhuza II. The area had been home to thriving animal populations, but commercial hunting, land devoted to growing sugarcane, timber exploitation and mining had driven most species to local extinction.

Swaziland has not lost one rhinoceros to poaching since 1992.
(Nicolas Brulliard/GlobalPost)

Ted Reilly, a young local farmer who had participated in an animal rescue operation in what was to become Zimbabwe and subsequently worked at Kruger park, was appalled by the situation when he came back to Swaziland. He first approached British authorities as Swaziland was then a protectorate but was told that neighboring Kruger park and another South African reserve offered plenty of protection to the region’s wildlife.

It was then that Reilly turned to his family and asked them to turn their successful beef, citrus, rice and corn farming operation into Swaziland’s first conservation area. The farm was not the best location for a nature reserve, but it was the only available land at the time and so in 1960 Milwane Wildlife Sanctuary was established. Reilly then visited King Sobhuza to ask for his support.

“And Sobhuza loved the idea because it was his heritage,” said Ann Reilly, Ted Reilly’s daughter. “So he allowed Dad to go and catch animals down in Hlane, where the last few animals were left.”