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Swaziland's wildlife makes spectacular comeback

Animal populations thrive thanks to tough anti-poaching legislation.

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.”