As part of his Year in the Wild expedition, photo-journalist Scott Ramsay visited three parks in Swaziland, and found a conservation system that has lessons for other counties in Africa
I recently spent ten days in Swaziland’s three protected areas – Hlane Royal National Park, Mkhaya Game Reserve and Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. All three offer special experiences for visitors, and the rhino walks in Mkhaya and Hlane are probably unparalleled in Africa.
But it’s a minor miracle that there is such abundant wildlife left in the kingdom’s parks. The story of its revival – and continued protection – should be a lesson to all other African countries.
If you are concerned about the calamitous state of rhinos in particular, then consider what Ted Reilly has to say. Ted, 75, has worked his whole adult life in protecting Swaziland’s wildlife and its natural habitat.
With support from King Sobhuza II, Reilly pioneered and implemented the establishment of the protected areas.
In 1960, Reilly turned the small family farm of Mlilwane near the capital, Mbabane, into a wildlife sanctuary after the British colonial authorities had denied him land elsewhere to establish a national park. Mlilwane was proclaimed in 1964 as the first formal conservation area in Swaziland. The land was donated to a trust to perpetuate it as a refuge for Swaziland’s beleaguered wild animals.
Reilly and his team reintroduced 22 large animal species into the country, including lion, elephant, rhino and hippo, after hunters had exterminated almost all wildlife by the 1960s.
White and black rhino were reintroduced in 1965 and 1986 respectively. Since 1992, just three rhinos have been killed by poachers in Swaziland (two in 2011, and one in 2014).
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Swaziland’s rhino protection programme is unmatched by any other country. This came about largely as a result of the Game Act – a highly effective piece of conservation legislation initiated and drafted by Reilly and passed into law.
From nothing, Swaziland now boasts several formal protected areas, including Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary (4600ha), Hlane Royal National Park (25 000ha), Mkhaya Game Reserve (10 000ha), Malalotja (18 200ha) and Mlawula Mbuluzi (2400ha) .
Today Reilly and his staff of 300 run Big Game Parks, a trust that operates Hlane on behalf of King Mswati III. They also manage Mkhaya and Mlilwane.
This year is Big Game Parks’ 50th anniversary. Like the central campfire at Milwane which has burnt continuously night and day for 50 years, Reilly and his team have kept the flames of conservation shining brightly in the small kingdom, often against great odds.
I travelled to Mlilwane to interview the softly-spoken conservationist at Reilly’s Rock, a beautiful guesthouse which was once the family home, where Reilly was born in 1938.
Scott Ramsay: How has Swaziland – and in particular Big Game Parks – been so successful with the conservation of rhinos and other wildlife?
Ted Reilly: Swaziland’s Game Act is a very powerful piece of legislation. If you poach or attempt to poach one of the specially protected species (white or black rhino, elephant or lion), you will go to jail. There’s a minimum of five years imprisonment, which can be increased to 15 years. There is no option a fine.
On top of your jail term, the prescribed value of the rhino poached must be paid back to the owner of the animal. And if you can’t pay, an additional two years is added to your sentence. So if a female adult rhino is worth R200 000, this must be paid back to the owner of the rhino.
In SA, if you poach a rhino, you don’t necessarily go to jail but can be given the option of a fine and walk free. That doesn’t happen here. Moreover, our laws don’t provide for a reduction of a sentence, or a suspended sentence.
This legislation has worked for more than 20 years, and in that time we’ve lost only three rhinos to poaching.
Our anti-poaching legislation is preventive legislation, not remedial legislation. We prefer not to put people in jail and we want to keep our rhinos alive. People say our law is draconian, but it has worked. The Game Act has kept people out of jail and it’s kept our rhinos alive, so everyone wins.
Of course, as with other crimes, you cannot eliminate rhino poaching completely, but the Game Act has worked, and enables the rangers to do their job effectively. The rangers have a right to carry arms, whereas before they carried only spears and knobkerries against poachers using AK47s. Now we can match them in weaponry. Our rangers also have effective powers of arrest, and they are allowed to search anyone, anywhere in the country – not just in the parks – without a search warrant.
Finally, we also have excellent intelligence in the communities. We are almost always aware of the presence of potential poachers, and what they are doing. We have a standing public offer of a R50 000 reward for information that leads to the conviction of a poacher.
SR: It is Big Game Parks’ 50th anniversary. Mlilwane was proclaimed as Swaziland’s first formal protected area in 1964, followed by Hlane Royal National Park in 1967 and Mkhaya Game Reserve in 1982. For you, what are the highlights of the past 50 years?
TR: There are three main highlights for me. First, the reintroduction of 22 animal species into Swaziland, including elephant, lion, buffalo, giraffe, blue duiker, suni, black and white rhino.
Swaziland was a British Protectorate until 1968, but it was the chosen hunting ground for people from the Transvaal from the early 1900s. Wildebeest were so plentiful that they were declared vermin. People were invited to hunt with reckless abandon. Some even used Vickers machineguns to shoot wildlife. Waterholes were poisoned, and this probably killed more animals than bullets.
The early colonial government wanted to tame the country and turn it into farmland. Hundreds of thousands of wild animals were killed. In the 1930s and 1940s, about a thousand impalas were shot each week and trucked up to Johannesburg to the market. Incredibly, so many antelope were shot that it was impossible to sell all of the meat, so some was boiled down, minced and fed to pigs.
In the 1950s, when I was growing up here, there were still plenty of wild animals left. But by the early 1960s, almost all of it had disappeared. The roan antelope was once plentiful, but the last one was found snared in 1961 near what is today Hlane Royal National Park.
It wasn’t until the animals became scarce that people woke up. So the reintroduction of those 22 species was a major achievement. The only species we haven’t yet managed to reintroduce is the Sharp’s grysbok.
The lion and the elephant are particularly important to Swaziland, because they are the symbols of the king and queen mother, who are known as Ngwenyama (lion) and Ndlovukazi (elephant) respectively. Today both species can be found at Hlane Royal National Park, while there are also elephants at Mkhaya.
Secondly, the economic viability and sustainability of our parks on self-generated revenues is a major highlight. Conservation is enormously expensive. All our parks, independently, have attained financial self-sufficiency. And together they can afford to pay levies to Big Game Parks to administer them.
Big Game Parks is economically viable even though it provides for the lower end of the market with affordable prices to accommodate all Swazis. Schoolchildren are given subsidised rates. More than 50% of our visitors are locals. We are very proud of this. It’s a remarkable achievement, given what’s happening elsewhere in Africa.
Overall, we have achieved self-sufficiency for all three parks without government subsidies. At Hlane, the government pays the salaries of the employees, but we pay for everything else, including food, accommodation, health care, uniforms and training.
We employ 300 people, each of whom has dependants, so the organisation is directly supporting an estimated 4000 Swazis. We also pay for all our own security measures, which are very expensive indeed.
Thirdly, we have gained and kept the confidence of successive head of state. This started in the early 1960s with King Sobhuza II, who was a personal friend of my father, Mickey, and who donated wild animals to Mlilwane.
King Mswati III continues to entrust us with the management of Hlane on his behalf, and is deeply committed to conservation. So we have established the trust and confidence of each king and queen mother, and regard that as a greatly satisfying achievement.
SR: What’s your view on the current rhino situation, especially in SA, including the Kruger National Park?
TR: The Kruger Park is currently at the forefront of rhino poaching. Rhinos are being plundered at the rate of at least two a day, which is where Swaziland was at the end of the first rhino war of 1988-92 when our Game Act was amended.
It is a sad indictment of society that a recent analysis concluded that the most dangerous threat to the men and women at the poaching coalface is being charged with murder for performing their duty. It is not the threat of bodily harm or sudden death, but the threat of being charged with murder. Can you imagine how constraining this must be in extremely dangerous circumstances? Rangers and all other law enforcers need encouragement and protection, not threats of reprisal. This is war we are talking about!
Additionally, the number of rhino deaths is probably understated. The SA government says about a thousand rhinos were poached in 2013, but they have only counted the recovered carcasses. What about those eaten by carnivores, those not found, the orphaned calves that died as a result of their mothers dying, or the unborn calves? Kruger is huge, and there’s no way that all dead rhinos can be found. So there’s no doubt the actual number of deaths is higher than quoted.
It’s a tragedy that there’s such a difference in approach between genuine, well-meaning people in their proposed solutions to the rhino poaching issue. You’ll never get consensus on a solution. It takes real, determined national leadership to devise and implement the solutions, and at the moment, there is no leadership.
The evidence of this is in the number of rhino NGOs. Ian Player was telling me the other day that there are 280 registered NGOs that are involved in raising money for rhinos. Imagine the cost of administering 280 separate NGOs! And, of course, they are effectively competing against each other.
If there was national leadership, and an effective national government organisation for anti-poaching operations, there wouldn’t be a need for 280 NGOs.
Finally, the first place you look when you have poaching is internally. You look at the people in the parks, the rangers, the managers and the military. Poaching of rhinos cannot happen without local knowledge. I’m sure that some rangers, military and conservation staff are involved in the rhino poaching.
The biggest crime-supporting device ever invented is the cell phone, and it’s enabling poaching within the parks. A ranger, soldier or park staff member can spot a rhino, send a text message across the border to someone in Mozambique, or to a soldier on the South African side, and an hour later the rhino is dead.
SR: So what should be done to stop the poaching in Kruger?
TR: Every protected area requires nuanced solutions. There is no single solution that can be applied as a panacea to all of Africa. But for Kruger, we have to revisit the politically-incorrect concept of fortress conservation. To help combat rhino poaching, SA must restore the fence between Kruger and Mozambique. Hard borders are imperative. Soft borders are just a nice idea.
There’s still a widespread misconception that soft borders will garner support of the communities, but in Kruger’s case, the concept of a transfrontier park with no fences is not working. We have to consider our wildlife – our rhinos – to be national assets of immense value. And we have to protect them as such.
The global solution involves the reduction of demand overseas – in Vietnam and China – but here, on the ground, we have to protect our wildlife with proper security, proper legislation and effective enforcement by well-armed, well-trained, well-protected and well-supported anti-poaching staff who are committed to the cause.
SR: How do you feel about the proposed trading of rhino horn?
TR: Nothing will ever stop the poaching. There is no magic wand that will absolutely solve the problem. But if trade is to be tried, then it must be done very soon so we can cushion the losses that surely will come. If trade doesn’t work, then we have enough rhinos left to pull the plug on trade and save what’s left. If we wait until there are only a few thousand rhino left, then they will become extinct. Our window of opportunity to trade is running out quickly. Everything else has been tried and we will never know until we make the effort of doing it.
SR: What’s your opinion on trophy hunting?
TR: Personally, I have no stomach for the killing of wild animals, but hunting has to be accommodated in the conservation matrix. That’s the reality. As a boy I hunted, but as an adult I lost interest in it. However, I’m the first to say that the need has to be accommodated.
It’s very lucrative, and that persuades private landowners to save habitat to provide for the hunting of wild animals, instead of converting that habitat for agriculture or livestock. Without habitat, the wildlife can’t exist. The protection and expansion of areas under natural habitat must be conservation’s first and most important goal.
I have no problem if someone shoots an endangered animal like a rhino if they bought it and own it. I don’t think ownership should be interfered with, because ownership is the reason habitat is being privately protected. It is easy to restore game to natural habitat if it is available, but once you have destroyed habitat, it cannot easily be replaced, so everything that helps to conserve habitat – including hunting – has to be considered, validated and accommodated.
Look at SA. In the 1960s, game was very scarce. Since private ownership of wildlife was allowed, there is more game on private land than in all of the national and provincial parks combined. There is three times more natural habitat being conserved on private land than on public land.
Compare this with Kenya, where they stopped hunting. Since then there has been an 80% decline in natural habitat. Wildlife in Kenya is totally dependent on government and NGO funds, and it doesn’t nearly cover the costs of conservation.
As an aside, there are lots of good people who support Kenya’s approach, but lots of those people are not conversant with the realities on the ground.
Ownership is key. If you allow private ownership of animals, and allow the owner to manage his own animals, there is inevitably a remarkable expansion of habitat. If you’re sitting on a piece of ground, and you can’t make money out of it from wildlife, and you can make money out of it from farming and livestock, then of course you’re going to do the latter. Money is the source of all evil, but you can’t eat without it, and you can’t conserve without it.
We’ve got to be pragmatic, and unless we are, we have far less chance of success. So financial independence is essential. It is the only way to withstand corruptive influences in the face of threats to survival. And hunting is one way to achieve that financial independence.
Big Game Parks is fortunate to be self-sufficient without hunting. Over my dead body will we ever start hunting here. All our costs are met from funding from tourism, live game sales and harvesting surplus game for protein that is affordable to the lower end of the market.
Finally, hunting and game viewing areas cannot mix and ideally should not border each other. Animals close to hunting areas soon catch on and become very shy and skittish, making for poor viewing for tourists.
Where to stay
Located on the escarpment, Mlilwane is perfect for families with young children. There is a range of outdoor activities and accommodation, including Reilly’s Rock, probably the best place to stay in the whole of Swaziland. Look out for the beautiful roan antelope wandering below, or the tiny blue duiker and suni antelope that are easily seen in the montane forest. There are no dangerous animals at Mlilwane, apart from a few hippos and crocodiles in the dams, so walking, hiking and mountain biking are encouraged.
Hlane is in the lowveld, close to Mozambique, and has elephants, lions and rhinos, so it makes for an excellent “bush” experience for families and couples. The self-catering chalets and campsites are similar to those found in Kruger, and there’s a good restaurant.
While Hlane covers 25 000ha, it’s still small compared to other large African reserves, so it does lack a sense of “wilderness”. There are several fenced-off areas where the elephants and lions occur. This compartmentalisation of the wildlife does detract somewhat from the park, but Hlane still makes for an intriguing wildlife visit, especially considering that very little wildlife existed there just 50 years ago.
Mkhaya is also in the lowveld, but it’s more exclusive and suited to couples, with several beautiful thatched chalets shaded by riverine forest, and an outdoor dining area. There are rhinos and elephants at Mkhaya, but no lions. The guided rhino walks are probably the best I’ve experienced in southern Africa. While all the guides at Big Game Parks are excellent, be sure to ask for Bongani Mbatha. He is one of the best guides I have met.
Year in the Wild, 2013-14
Following on from his first Year in the Wild, photojournalist Scott Ramsay is travelling from July 2013 to October 2014 to some of the same parks (but in different seasons) as well as to many new parks and nature reserves in SA, and the transfrontier parks in southern Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Again, his goal is to create awareness about protected areas, and to inspire others to travel themselves to these natural wonders.
Partners include Cape Union Mart, Ford Everest, Goodyear and K-Way, with support from WildCard, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Globecomm, National Luna, Outdoor Photo, Safari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom. For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com.