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. Things didn’t quite go to plan, with barely two dozen remaining 30 years later. Drastic action was needed.
Upon finding another slaughtered carcass in 1992 – its horn hacked off by an axe – Ted took the body to the capital and dumped it on the steps of the King’s palace. The message was received loud and clear, and groundbreaking new legislation was drafted almost overnight.
Along with murder and rape, rhino poaching became an unbailable offence. Suspects could no longer pay a fine to avoid prison; they went straight to jail to await trial and contemplate a 15-year stint behind bars. It worked. For nearly 20 years there wasn’t a single rhino poached in Mkhaya. Then, in 2011, two were killed – and so were the poachers .