When Swaziland’s Big Game Parks celebrated 50 Years of Conservation in 2014, Scott Ramsay visited the protected areas to see how the small kingdom has created some of the best animal sanctuaries in the world. Story and pictures by Scott Ramsay
In 2014, Big Game Parks of Swaziland reach a milestone: 50 years of looking after nature.
The story of conservation here is one of tragedy and triumph, and is tightly intertwined with the life of Ted Reilly. By the 1950s relentless colonial hunting had wiped out the abundant wildlife, so in 1960, the ardent conservationist turned his family farm Mlilwane into the first game reserve (after the British colonial government denied Reilly the land to start a national park).
At Mlilwane, Reilly sheltered the last remaining impala and other antelope and within a few years, it had become a shining example of what can be achieved through conservation. After independence in 1964, King Sobhuza II was so impressed that he appointed Reilly to form a network of protected areas in the rest of the kingdom to restore the wildlife that once wildly roamed.
Since then, Ted Reilly and his team of about 300 staff have expanded the protected area network and successfully reintroduced 22 large wild animal species into the country, including lion, elephant, rhino and hippo. From nothing, Swaziland now boasts several formal protected areas, including Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary (4,600 hectares), Hlane Royal National Park (25,000 ha) and Mkhaya,Game Reserve (10,000 ha).
50 Years of Conservation
At Mlilwane the campfire has been burning for 50 years, since the start of conservation in Swaziland. Here staff members Bheki Knwanyana, Ntsikie Giwindza and Nhlanhla Giwindza stoke the flames.
Encounters with rare antelope
The last roan in Swaziland was shot long ago by hunters. Today Ted Reilly has reintroduced a small but growing population of these rare antelope at Mlilwane.
A family of roan antelope at Mlilwane. For now they are in a large, fenced enclosure but once their numbers grow, they’ll be released into the other national parks.
The suni antelope is a rare species found only in the forest regions of the south-eastern parts of Southern Africa – and around the beautiful Reilly’s Rock Guesthouse in Mlilwane.
The high areas of Mlilwane around Reilly’s Rock Guesthouse are also a great place to see blue duiker, the second-smallest antelope in Africa. This one came right up to me, poking his nose into my camera lens.
Up Close and Personal with White Rhinos
While I’ve visited most of the South African game reserves that conserve rhinos, I believe Mkhaya Game Reserve and Hlane Royal National Park offer the best rhino interactions for visitors. These two white rhinos were no more than five metres away from the guide and me. The rhinos here aren’t threatened by humans, having not been hunted for decades (and with very few killed by poachers). The result is a superlative experience for visitors.
Guide Bongani Mbatha and guests get up close and personal with two white rhinos. Far from being dangerous and aggressive creatures (as portrayed by some hunters), white rhinos are quite docile and trusting of people. This is perhaps why elsewhere in Africa, they are such easy targets for poachers. White rhinos often remind me of really large cows, grazing lazily on the grass.
Lions Return to Swaziland
For several decades since the 1950s, there were no lions in Swaziland because they had all been shot by colonial hunters and farmers. Ted Reilly and his team reintroduced them and today Hlane Royal National Park gives visitors excellent opportunities to see them.
Lion and 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. There is also elephant at Mkhaya Game Reserve.
One morning, I watched this lioness try to hunt an impala but she and her sister had no luck. Afterwards they came walking through the wet grass towards me, looking particularly peeved!
This big male was very gentle with the cub, despite the youngster biting, grabbing and pulling on his dad’s mane. I’m always amazed how gentle male lions can be with their own offspring…
The hard work of conservation
When Hlane Royal National Park was proclaimed, it was littered with several thousand snares. Here, a ranger stands next to more than 20,000 snares at the entrance to Hlane. There are similar collections of snares at Hlilwane and Mkhaya. At one stage, there were many more snares in Swaziland’s bush than there were actual wild antelope.
Ted Reilly can quite rightly be called the father of conservation in Swaziland. After spending a few days with Reilly, I was struck by how much he loves Swaziland and its natural heritage – including all wild animals. He’s an inspirational person. Here he feeds a young grey rhebok that had become sick due to persistent summer rains.
Places to stay
The lovely Reilly’s Rock Guesthouse, in which Ted Reilly was born in 1938. Today, it’s a beautiful place for visitors to stay. The lush garden often offers visitors sightings of blue duiker and suni.
My little rondavel in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. The reserve also has traditional Swazi beehive huts, self-catering cottages, campsites and a backpackers’ lodge.
While Hlane and Mlilwane have extensive accommodation options for visitors, Mkhaya Game Reserve has the best atmosphere and the best sense of wilderness. The thatched rondavels are open to the elements and are situated alongside a dry river bed under massive trees.
A Family Legacy
Reilly and his family continue to actively lead conservation efforts in Swaziland. In this photo, Ted’s daughter Ann looks out over Mlilwane from the top of Nyonyane Mountain.