MLILWANE, SWAZILAND — On childhood romps through his family's 1,150-acre farm, Ted Reilly used to chase sakabula birds and reedbuck through the tall waving grass. The mountains and valleys of this New Jersey-size nation teemed with impala and other wildlife.
By the 1950s, the countryside had fallen eerily silent, its wealth of wild animals destroyed by hunters. Even the doves and pied starlings that once flew overhead vanished. Outraged, Mr. Reilly decided he had to do something to bring back Swaziland's native fauna.
He offered the British colonial government his inheritance - the family farm - as Swaziland's first wildlife conservation area. But the government declined, saying that South Africa's vast Kruger Park, half a day's drive away, was more than enough nature reserve for Southern Africa. So Reilly, the son of a white tin-mine owner, took matters in his own hands.
"It wasn't easy," recalls the conservationist, sitting on his porch recently while a rock dassie, which looks like a cat-size hamster, nuzzles against his neck and a second slurps coffee from his mug. "The giraffe we brought in ate our oranges. Things like that."
Today, elephant, rhinoceros, lion and other wild beasts roam the former citrus-and-grain farm's scrub-covered hills.
Reilly's efforts, begun in 1960, have laid the ground work for a fledgling conservation effort in Swaziland, an overnight stop on the tourist trail. Although the entire country is smaller than South Africa's Kruger National Park or Botswana's Kalahari Game Reserve, Swaziland's two tiny nature preserves represent a significant achievement for this late convert to conservation.
Reilly's family initially took in threatened and wounded animals - first a few impala, a graceful and petite antelope common in Africa. Soon more exotic specimens arrived. Slowly, the wild animals began to dominate both the land and the Reilly family's time. The farm's grain fields and citrus orchards were gradually reclaimed by nature. To support what had become Swaziland's unofficial wildlife sanctuary, the family opened the area to the public and charged a 25-cent entry fee.
"People first came out of curiosity," says Reilly. "Eventually people came here on picnics." When word spread of the strange experiment, Reilly won his most important patron: the king of Swaziland.
After Swaziland was granted independence in 1968, and King Mswati III regained control of the nation, the Reilly farm - and a 70,000-acre part of the royal property - became the new nation's first two official national parks: the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and the Hlane Royal National Park, respectively.
Twenty-two species of animals were imported from neighboring countries. In 1966, rhinos returned to Swaziland after almost a century of absence. In 1969, the first giraffe was born in Swaziland in more than a century. That same year more than 3,000 acres were added to the original Reilly farm.
But, the reappearance of the animals drew not just benign admirers. In the first few years of operation, park rangers removed more than 20,000 wire snares set by poachers.
The problem escalated in the 1980s, with rhinos a favorite prey of AK-47-wielding trespassers. Rhino horns fetch huge sums in Asia, where they are used as a traditional medicine. At the height of what are now referred to as the "Rhino Wars," Swaziland was losing one of these prehistoric-looking creatures every two weeks.
During that time, rangers armed themselves and herded the animals into enclosures for safety. A plan was under way to move the entire population of rhinos to South Africa for safekeeping. Eventually, after the Swazi government passed stiff antipoaching laws and a shootout left two poachers dead, the illegal hunting moved elsewhere.
The nation hasn't lost a single rhino since.
Still, the subject is a sensitive one. The number of rhinos in Swaziland is considered classified information. "I can say they are doing extremely well," Reilly says. "They are coming back with a vengeance."
So is the rest of Swaziland's wild kingdom. Park land now covers about 4 percent of the territory - a good start for a country with no green space on its map just 30 years ago, says Keith Cooper, director of conservation for the Wildlife Society of South Africa.
"Conservation needs a champion," says Mr. Cooper. "And Reilly has been the stalwart of conservation in Swaziland. He's an exceptional person. It is due to his perseverance and tenacity that Swaziland has any preserved areas at all."
Plans are to continue expanding protected areas. A recent survey identified 34 prospective nature reserves.
The country is now negotiating with South Africa and Mozambique to establish a tri-national conservation area that would link up parks in the three countries and allow the free migration of animals and tourists among the areas.
While the Swaziland parks are mere backyard garden plots when compared to some of Africa's famous, sprawling reserves, they are nonetheless a worthy venture, says Werner Myburgh, project manager for the Peace Parks Foundation in South Africa.
But probably gone forever is the richness of Swaziland's past animal kingdom.
A century ago, wildlife was so abundant here that teams of entrepreneurial hunters traveled from hundreds of miles away for a few days in Swaziland's mountains and valleys. They went home with wagonloads of carcasses and pelts. Biltong, a traditional dried jerky made from almost any sort of game, flowed out of Swaziland and fed South Africans and Mozambicans.
As late as the 1940s, a shipping service known as the "Impala Express" was still trucking more than 1,000 impala to market in Johannesburg each week.
But the parks, says Mr. Myburgh, are "the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society