Swaziland's wildlife makes spectacular comeback

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.”

Today, Milwane has increased tenfold in size, and is home to large animals such as hippopotamuses, giraffes and leopards. Along with Mkhaya Game Reserve in central Swaziland and Hlane Royal National Park in the northeast, it is operated by Big Game Parks, a private nonprofit organization endorsed by the king and still run in large part by the Reilly family. The country’s other reserves fall under the supervision of the Swaziland National Trust Commission, a government body.

Swaziland’s reserves have been replenished in animals thanks to transfers from parks in South Africa but also through "Back to Africa," a program that organizes the repatriation of rare animals from zoos worldwide to suitable environments in Africa. Earlier this year, Milwane welcomed three roan antelopes from a zoo in the Czech Republic. The antelopes joined a herd that had been transferred from the United Kingdom in 2004 under the same program.

To befit its royal status, Hlane is the crown jewel of Swaziland’s reserves. Unlike Milwane, whose vegetation includes alien species such as gum tree and lantana, Hlane features a landscape of native savannah, thickets and riverine forests. It is home to Swaziland’s only lion population after a reintroduction in 1994 and to three others of the Big Five — leopards, elephants and rhinoceroses but no buffalo.

Following the “Rhino War” of 1988 to 1992 when animals were killed at an alarming rate that reached one killing every two weeks, rhinoceroses were moved to a separate enclosure at Hlane so that their numbers could be better monitored. Convicted poachers face both the court of law and punishment by their traditional chiefs. Swaziland’s Game Act was also amended to make it one of the world’s toughest anti-poaching legislation. Under the act, rangers who shoot and kill poachers are not liable to prosecution.

“Rangers in Swaziland have better rights than even the police,” said Sibusiso, a guide at Hlane.

Authorities also distributed meat to communities surrounding the parks to deter poaching. Those efforts paid off. Although the government does not release wildlife statistics for security reasons, observers agree numbers have rebounded spectacularly. In addition to the export of animals to Kruger, traditional hunts have resumed at Hlane. Hunters armed with rifles, pistols and spears now regularly participate in culling operations to control booming populations.

Wisdom Dlamini, director of national parks at the Swaziland National Trust Commission, said three more protected areas are waiting for official approval to add to the existing six and that the establishment of a transfrontier conservation area would allow animals to move freely across borders from Swaziland to South Africa and Mozambique.

“It really has done a turnaround,” Ann Reilly said. “It’s a very healthy situation.”