Tracking rhinos in Swaziland

Swaziland might be tiny, but it packs a mighty punch: it's got mountains and rich game parks, and a rhino population that's actually on the up...

5 mins
Two metres. Perhaps even a little less. That’s how far away from us the dark, stocky, hunched body eventually came to a halt. Nobody dared move. Not a word was spoken, not a breath drawn. He eyeballed us with suspicion, and from such close quarters that I could count the blades of grass stuck to his pointy horn.

After a few of minutes the black rhino lowered his head and retreated. He wandered back towards the dense thickets where two others – mother and calf white rhinos – wallowed happily in a freshly dug mud pool. Sat in an open-topped jeep, the five of us were utterly dumbfounded at our close encounter with one of Africa’s most under-threat creatures. Safari guide Bongane Mbatha broke the silence: “That’s what we call Mkhaya magic.”

Rhino rise & fall It was indeed a magical introduction to Mkhaya, a small, privately owned and funded game reserve in south-east Swaziland, considered to be among the very best in Africa for rhino viewing. You can even track them on foot. If you’re brave enough.

However, before I could even think about putting on my hiking boots, a troubling sight greeted us at the park’s modest headquarters. Laid out on the ground were dozens of rhino skulls and a collection of nasty-looking snares: souvenirs of a gruesome industry. Rhinos have walked the earth for more than six million years, and poaching is nothing new.

Since at least the seventh century AD, there have been those who’ve thought rhino horns better suited to being cups and bowls. Today, the animals are hunted because those horns are considered medicinal in the Far East. Consequently rhino numbers are in freefall: it’s estimated that in 2013 more than 900 were poached in South Africa alone. But Swaziland – bordered by Mozambique to the east and South Africa to the north, south and west – is bucking the trend, and Mkhaya has become something of a refuge.

The park’s rhino population is healthy and growing, although the exact number is a closely guarded secret. As we headed off on our afternoon’s game drive, Bongane explained the differences between white rhinos (docile and calm) and black ones (tetchy and temperamental). We spotted plenty, none of which gave us a second look.

“The rhinos here are very relaxed, especially compared to places like Kruger where they’ve experienced poachers and seen their friends die,” said Bongane. Our jeep bounced along waterlogged trails and passed through Jurassic Park-style electrified fences that hummed and crackled – erected as part of Mkhaya’s sable antelope breeding programme.

On the other side was Stone Camp, the park’s only accommodation. Oil lanterns illuminated the sandy paths and the wild African bush closed in around the 12 semi-open and electricity-free thatched huts. I stayed in Rhino’s Romp (otherwise known as Room 2); monkeys swung above, to the distant cries of spotted hyenas. Before a tasty dinner of impala stew, Bongane and I sat around the campfire.

“There were no rhinos in Swaziland when I was a boy,” he said. “But nobody really cared back then.” One person who did was Ted Rilley, a local conservationist credited with single-handedly saving the country’s rhinos. Amid all the doom and gloom, it’s a success story few acknowledge. Swaziland’s rhinos had been completely eradicated by the turn of the 20th century but Ted initiated their reintroduction in the 1960s.

But things didn’t quite go to plan, with barely two dozen remaining 30 years later. Drastic action was needed...

To read this article in full, see the July/August (148) issue of Wanderlust – on sale here!

The author travelled as a guest of the Swaziland Tourism Authority (0115 972 7250). Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1250) offers tailormade trips to Swaziland. A seven-night itinerary, including Mkhaya Game Reserve and Shewula Mountain Camp, costs from £2,150pp, including flights, accommodation, transfers, all meals and game drives.

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