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Thursday, June 1, 2023
MBABANE, Jun 25 2005 (IPS) - In the little kingdom of Swaziland, a tough animal preservation law has cut poaching by 90 percent since its enactment ten years ago, while the bloody extinction of rhino has come entirely to a halt.
"It has been a remarkable success story. Other nations have come to Swaziland to see how we do it," said veteran nature conservationist Ted Reilly, founder and director of Big Game Parks of Swaziland, a non-profit foundation that overseas three animal reserves.
One of the architects of the Game Act of 1994, Reilly saw the need for a thorough anti-poaching law after his rangers were dying in battle with poachers armed with weapons of war, and the nation’s population of rhino was dwindling to nothing.
"Hlane and Mkhaya parks are close to the Mozambique border. In the early and mid 1990s, poachers came over the border with AK-47s used in the Mozambican civil war. They were on a mission of slaughter, and their cruelty had to be seen to be believed," Reilly said.
Today, visitors to the country’s parks can view photos of mutilated rhino, which bled to death after their horns were hacked off with bush knives. The horns made their way to the Middle East, where artisans carved them into daggers, and to Asia, where apothecaries created rhino horn potions thought to cure impotency and increase men’s sexual performance.
"It is a form of sympathetic magic: like produces like. The rhino is seen to be a powerful, potent beast, so his fertility is transferred to the human user who consumes the potion. It may just be psychological, but Asia has men who swear by it," said Aaron Dlamini, an environmentalist with Green Cross, a non-governmental organisation (ngo). Dlamini has documented the history of what is now known as the Rhino Wars.
A surplus of weaponry and an absence of a powerful conservation act laid the groundwork for the wars, but the major contributor was the Big Game Park of Swaziland success at reintroducing species that had been hunted to extinction.
"Poaching returned in a big way when there was once again game to poach," Dlamini said.
According to the Game Act, rangers have been mandated by government to stop poachers, by force if necessary. Without any time of game conservation law previous to this, rangers were unable to collect evidence of poaching if this meant pursuing suspects out of the parks.
"Rangers did have guns, but they were small arms and rifles, and were no match for AK-47s," Reilly said.
The Game Act did not arm rangers with weapons of war – escalating battles was not seen as a rational way to protect wildlife and boost tourism. Rather, the Act put an emphasis on penalties as a way to stop poaching.
Defendants in poaching cases have complained that they need to hunt to survive. But most poachers are professionals who sell their trophies to butcheries. The Big Game Parks acknowledges that hunting has always been part of Swazi life, and does allow traditional hunting parties at Hlane Nature Reserve.
"What we are trying to do is to promote wildlife amongst Swazis as their precious natural heritage that must be preserved. It was shameful that the symbol of the Swazi king, the lion, was no longer in Swaziland until reintroduced in 1993. The elephant, another royal symbol, was also extinct, and was reintroduced in 1985," Reilly said.
Rangers may not otherwise take the law into their own hands. If a ranger is responsible for an injury or death, he or she is detained by law enforcement authorities for an investigation, and can be tried for aggravated assault or murder if the situation requires.
"All Southern African countries allow their rangers to take up arms to protect their game parks. Botswana, South Africa, Namibia – rangers must be armed for their safety, though mostly in self-defence against human rather than animal predators. The Swaziland Game Act is progressive because it establishes a scale of penalties for poaching depending on the rarity of the animal," Reilly said.
Since the enactment of the Game Act ten years ago, poaching of all types is only one tenth what it was in the late 1980s. Poaching of rhino has been eradicated, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
"We haven’t lost a rhino since 1992," Reilly said.
The price to be paid for undermining the act, however, is a return to untrammeled poaching, and the likely endangerment of the country’s indigenous animals.
"Our friends at Kruger Park gave us elephants, rhino and lions to restock our parks in the 1980s and 2000s, after these great animals had been hunted to extinction in Swaziland. If we lose these animals a second time, our friends will not be so generous. The national heritage of the Swazi people will be lost for good," Reilly said.
Kruger Park, located in neighbouring South Africa, is a major game park about two hours drive north of Swaziland. Reilly said that when he first proposed a game park of Swaziland to British authorities in the 1960s, when Swaziland was a British protectorate, they scoffed at the notion because of the nearness of Kruger.
Thousands of visitors have come to Swaziland to admire the very animals coveted by poachers, not only rhino, but leopard, impala, warthog, ostrich and bird species – not to mention the menagerie beyond the interest of poachers – crocodiles, hippos, zebra, and wildebeest.
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