I’ve visited most of Southern Africa’s game reserves that conserve rhino, but I believe that Mkhaya Game Reserve and Hlane Royal National Park offers the best rhino interaction for visitors. These two white rhino were no more than about five metres from me and guide Bongani Mbatha. The rhinos here are not threatened by humans, because they have not been hunted for decades, and very few rhino are killed by poachers. The result is a superlative experience for visitors.

As part of my Year in the Wild project in 2014, I recently returned from Swaziland, where I visited Hlane Royal National Park, Mkhaya Game Reserve and Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. These are the three premier protected areas in the little kingdom, and are managed by Big Game Parks, an organization that has been entrusted by King Mswati III to protect and conserve Swaziland’s wildlife on behalf of the nation.

Guide Bongani Mbatha and guests get up close to two white rhino. Far from being dangerous and aggressive creatures (as portrayed by some hunters), white rhinos are quite docile and trusting of people. Perhaps this is why elsewhere in Africa they are such easy targets for poachers. White rhinos often remind me of really big cows, grazing lazily on the grass.

There are good numbers of black rhino too. Guide Bongani Mbatha and I found this black rhino bull, and we spent about twenty minutes admiring him. Unlike white rhinos, which are easy to approach on foot, black rhinos are more shy and generally more wary of humans.

 

The story of conservation here is one of tragedy and triumph, and is tightly intertwined with the life of Ted Reilly. In 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 land to start a national park).

The black rhino bull we saw was uncharacteristically relaxed, and allowed us to get quite close, even if the red billed oxpecker was shrieking its alarm call.

For several decades since the 1950s, there were no lions in Swaziland, because they had all been shot by colonial hunters and farmers. Then Ted Reilly and his team reintroduced them, and today Hlane Royal National Park gives visitors excellent opportunities to see them.

Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary has no rhino, elephants or lion, but it does have hippo, as well as some rare, endangered species like roan antelope. Ted Reilly is slowly building up the kingdom’s population of this speices. Their long, comical ears make it easy to identify them.

 

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 in 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, and restore the wildlife that once roamed widely.

Note the hook-lip on the black rhino, an adaption for browsing off trees and bushes. The white rhino’s lips are wider and more elongated, perfect for grazing grass.

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!

 

Since then, Ted Reilly and his team of 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.

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 at how gentle male lions can be with their own offspring...

A family of roan antelope at Mlilwane. For now they are in a large fenced enclosure, but once their numbers have grown, they will be released into the other national parks.

 

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 recently in 2014). As a percentage of the total rhino population in Swaziland, this is a fraction of the rhinos lost in South Africa. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Swaziland’s rhino protection is unmatched by any other country.

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 Mlilwane and Mkhaya. At one stage, there were many more snares in Swaziland’s bush than there were actual wild antelope.

At Mlilwane, Ted Reilly feeds a young grey rhebok that had become sick due to the persistent summer rains. After spending a few days with Ted Reilly, I was struck by how much he loves Swaziland and its natural heritage, including all wild animals. He is an inspirational person.

 

This came about largely as a result of the Game Act, a highly effective piece of conservation legislation that was initiated and drafted by Ted Reilly, approved by King Mswati III and passed into law by Parliament.

There are some seriously impressive Cape buffalo at Mkhaya Game Reserve, and they are also remarkably tolerant of humans – to a point. The red-billed oxpecker was clearly not getting his warning message across to this buffalo.

The high areas of Mlilwane around Reilly’s Rock guesthouse is 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.

 

From nothing, Swaziland now boasts several formal protected areas, including Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary (4600 ha), Hlane Royal National Park (25 000ha) and Mkhaya Game Reserve (10 000 ha).

The lovely Reilly’s Rock guesthouse, in which Ted Reilly was born in 1938 and is today a beautiful place for visitors to stay.

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 huge trees.

Ted Reilly and his family continue to actively lead conservation efforts in Swaziland. In this photo Ted's daughter Ann is looking out over Mlilwane from the top of Nyonyane Mountain

 

Mlilwane lies within the escarpment area of Swaziland, and it’s a great place to see the rare Suni antelope. Several of this species can be easily seen in the undergrowth around the beautiful Reilly’s Rock guesthouse.

Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary - Swaziland

For more, go to www.biggameparks.org or www.yearinthewild.com.

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