Why is it that hundreds of rhino have been killed in South Africa over the past decade while the small neighboring country of Swaziland has lost less than a handful?
As we sit watching a small herd of ever watchful Water Buck, a jittery Warthog family and the partly submerged lazy Hippos at the waterhole George Mbatha is introduced to us. This slight weather worn man in ranger gear is the Wildlife Conservation Manger in Swaziland’s Royal National Park. We come to find out that he is ‘the’ man when it comes to anti-poaching efforts across the country. (Photo below)
Following the current rhino crisis for the past few years I wondered why Swaziland rarely made the news. Did they not have any rhino? Or were they simply able to protect them better than South Africa? Sure, they have far less land mass and far less rhino. However, they both lie adjacent to Mozambique with its porous borders and laws that aid more than deter wildlife trafficking.
For 28 years George has been protecting wildlife. He grew up with an appreciation for animals and had a dream to become a wildlife ranger. However, these types of jobs were scarce and like many other young men from Swaziland ended up working in the gold mines of South Africa. After some time an opportunity arose to be on a security detail for a game farm and lodge. With his dream leading the way he finally secured employment in Swaziland as a ranger, however, little did he realize that there was much more in store for him.
Unlike some other African countries (South Africa included) when a poacher is killed the ranger who pulled the trigger is charged with murder or the alleged poacher may get off Scot-free due to lack of evidence, things in Swaziland are quite different. In 1990 during the last Rhino Wars King Sobhuza II, influenced by Ted Reilly, initiated a revision to the Wildlife Conservation Act. This new law made poaching a jail-able offense with no bail and no fines for crimes involving endangered species. Also, the new Act no longer penalized the ranger when acting in self-defense. So they could do their job without the concern of being viewed as the ‘bad guy’ under the law if a poacher got injured or even killed while being apprehended.
The news spread and poachers largely went elsewhere… as did the syndicates who hire locals to poach. George oozes with satisfaction as he recounts stories of their effectiveness, not that it makes his work any less. He oversees a large staff and has rangers in the field 24/7 to assure subsistence poachers are kept at bay and snares are removed.
A wall of thousands of snares are displayed at the entrance of one of the Swaziland Parks a powerful visual of the challenge wildlife rangers face, not to mention the cruel death traps lurking in many parts of the bush. (Photo below)
What if South Africa embraced similar laws to Swaziland regarding poaching? What would happen if this zero tolerance notion was put in place? After sitting at the waterhole watching two, then three more and still another two rhino come by to drink I really wonder about the sincerity of any leader saying their nation is against wildlife trafficking yet does not change the laws to make it happen.
Hat off to Swaziland for doing so.