The story of conservation in Swaziland began 50 years ago when Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary opened to the public on 12 July 1964. Roland Stanbridge recalls the early days when game capture meant tackling a zebra to the ground.

It was an unlikely scenario in the middle of a dark night, nearly 50 years ago. I was in the passenger seat of a stripped down Land Rover roaring at full speed through the thorn tree studded savanna of eastern Swaziland. No doors, no windows, no roof, no safety belts, and certainly no roads. We closed in on a galloping zebra. “Get him,” shouted Ted Reilly, the founder of Big Game Parks. I leaped off the vehicle and wrapped my arms around its neck. The impact knocked the animal off balance, and we both fell to the ground.

Something was wrong. The zebra was supposed to be drugged and dazed, but it appeared to be a vitally strong and angry beast with a powerful desire – to bite me. It thumped me up and down on the ground, trying to loosen my lock grip around its neck.

“Help me, help me,” I shouted urgently to the others.

But something else was wrong. They all seemed to find this hilarious. Instead of rushing to my aid they were howling with laughter. How did I come to be in this bizarre situation?

Taking a zebra down by Jen Cowie

In the early days of Swazi conservation, zebra were physically tackled to the ground.

Finding my feet in Swaziland

Let me backtrack. Because for me this Swaziland story has larger and profound implications. My struggle with the zebra was part of a transformative experience that has greatly shaped my worldview and philosophy of life.

I am not a Swazi. I grew up in rural South Africa with a love of the countryside, but no real understanding of it. I avidly read books about ‘brave’ hunters, such as Jock of the Bushveld, Fanie Word Grootwildjagter, Selous’ A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa, and the like. They were my heroes.

As a teenager I spent all my holidays hunting on friends farms, and at times illegally poaching at night. I owned several firearms. I had no idea at all of the need for conservation.

I began work as a journalist soon after leaving school, and in 1964/65 aged 19, I was offered a job at the Times of Swaziland, then owned by South Africa’s Argus Group. Soon after starting work the editor told me about an interesting and controversial young man who had started his own private game reserve.

So off I went to meet Ted Reilly, little knowing this would take me on one of the biggest and best adventures of my life.

Mlilwane at that time was 1 300 acres in size. Formerly the family farm and tin mining operation, Ted had converted it into a wildlife sanctuary. At that time Mlilwane was Swaziland’s only game reserve. And there was nothing resembling a department of nature conservation in the country.

I was entranced by Mlilwane and kept returning to see more, hear more. I soon came to understand that Ted was already thinking way beyond just stocking his private game reserve. His vision was to reintroduce into Swaziland all those species that had been hunted to extinction — and these included rhino, elephant, various antelope, giraffe, and importantly, lion. Apart from being an ecologically important predator, lions have great cultural significance in Swaziland. iNgwenyama is the title of the king of Swaziland. And ngwenyama means lion in siSwati.

A game capture mission

One day Ted called me at the newspaper office and asked whether I would like to join him that evening on a mission to the far side of the country near the Lebombo Mountains. Sure, I said. I had no idea what was in store for us that night.

We left with one truck carrying two wooden animal crates and another carrying a load covered with a tarpaulin. Finally, while driving along a sandy road through bushveld, with no lights of dwellings around, we suddenly turned off into the trees and parked some distance from the road. Ted got out and stood quietly listening for about a minute. I later learned he was checking to make sure that we were not being followed.

In pursuit of zebra

Using Jezebel, the stripped down Land Rover, to pursue zebra.

Two of his game rangers removed the tarpaulin and there it was… Jezebel, the stripped down Land Rover destined to become a legend, far and wide.

“Where are we?” I asked, and Ted replied that we were on the traditional Royal hunting grounds with King Sobhuza II’s permission. Our catching was a race against the poachers who were regularly encountered – it was a matter of who would get to the animals first.

The mid 1960s were still the early days of using tranquilising drugs for animal capture. Around Africa a high percentage of animals died during capture attempts, through too much stress, through inferior drugs taking too long to take effect, through heart failure after the animal ran itself to exhaustion, and other fatal side-effects. But this was changing…

Although Ted had many detractors who considered him to be an impractical dreamer, he was enjoying growing respect among conservationists for his achievements. One of these was Dr Tony Harthoorn, the pioneeering veterinary surgeon who had recently developed the revolutionary immobilising drug M99, a powerful synthetic morphine. He had been using it with great success in Natal (KZN) to immobilise rhino. M99 was quick acting, and its effects could be rapidly neutralised with an antidote drug, nalorphine. Ted was one of the first conservationists to be given supplies of these drugs by Dr Harthoorn.

“Tonight we are after zebra” said Ted. “And you can prove your spotlight skills.” I watched fascinated as he loaded a dart with M99 and inserted it into the dart gun. I had never seen one before. Ted drove Jezebel deeper into the bush, stopped, stood up and called loudly into the night  “Awa awa awa wow wow wow”. Seconds later his call was answered by distant zebra. They recognised him as a fellow zebra!

We sped off in their direction. I was holding the spotlight and seeking them out, at the same time trying to figure out how I was supposed to stay in the vehicle while holding the light steadily in both hands, and avoid being lashed by the branches of thorn trees. We quickly reached the zebra herd, which was galloping away. Ted decided upon his quarry, manoeuvred it away from the herd, was handed the dart gun, and to my utter amazement, drove with one hand on the wheel, one hand pointing the dart gun, foot flat on the accelerator, avoiding trees and anthills, and shot the dart into the zebra’s rump.

This all happened so fast that it was only afterwards I was able to think through what had taken place. I marvelled at the extraordinary coordination required to achieve what Ted had just done. And in the coming weeks and many many months I saw him do this time and time again. I cannot remember him ever missing the target.

Within a short time the zebra’s gait became unstable. Immediately the game rangers on the back ran up, grabbing it by the tail and neck and levering it down to the ground. I later learned this was a crucial time. Once bewildered and disoriented by the drug, the animal could easily run at full speed into a tree and kill itself.

We all loaded the zebra on to the back of Jezebel, drove back the truck, placed the animal next to a crate, and Ted injected the antidote. Within some seconds the zebra started awakening. We helped it to its feet and guided it into the crate. Success!

A couple of hours later we were making our way back across the country to Mlilwane, with two zebra destined for a new home.