MEMORIES OF MLILWANE – Bill Norrie – Return of the Giraffe

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The new born calf weighed in at 150 pounds, and stood six feet high on very wobbly legs.  This was no ordinary baby giraffe.  It was the first giraffe to be born in Swaziland in almost a hundred years.  Hunters had taken their toll on these lovely animals until, sadly, there were none left in the region.  The parents of this young giraffe had arrived in Mlilwane in the back of a one and a half tonne blue Datsun pick-up truck in 1964.

The original two came from the Kruger National Park and no, we didn’t catch them ourselves.  The rangers had captured about forty of them to distribute to other game parks and reduce the giraffe herds in the Kruger Park.   Ted was well known in those ranger circles from his time spent in the Sabi River area recently, and news of his successful venture at Mlilwane had reached the officials of the park.  He was offered two giraffes.  The problem was that, if he wanted them, he had to go and get them.  There were held at a place called Hoedspruit, near Phalaborwa, about two hundred miles to the north. It was a long and difficult drive on dirt roads at the beginning of the rainy season.  The roads could be dry and dusty, or become a sea of mud in the rainy season.  We experienced both conditions on this remarkable and memorable trip.

I arrived at Mlilwane on a Friday evening in preparation for the long journey that started first thing next morning – at sparrow fart (very early), as we used to say. Ted and Petros led the way in the Datsun truck and I followed.  The plan was to leave my car at the South African border north of Swaziland, so I could return to Johannesburg on Sunday night, and be back at work on Monday morning.  They would continue to Mlilwane themselves.  In retrospect, I should have taken the day off, though my manager didn’t get too excited about people who started their work week on a Tuesday for any reason, let alone “goofing” around while they transported giraffes somewhere.  In his mind, the Denver Machinery Company took precedent over any giraffe.  My car was left at the border, and the three of us headed to White River, which was to be our first stop.

Ted wanted to stop and say hello to a good friend of his, Mrs. Stevenson-Hamilton. She was the widow of Col. James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first game warden of the Kruger National Park that was originally the Sabie Sand River Reserve, in 1902.  Ted had known the colonel, as had his dad in his Boer War days.  We had tea with this gracious and colourful lady on her spacious veranda. I just sat there in awe while she and Ted talked; being in their presence I realized the significance of the history and the life she had led in those early days in the eastern Transvaal.  One of the first game rangers the colonel hired was Harry Wolhuter who wrote the book “Memoirs of a Game Ranger”; he survived an attack by a lion that had pulled him off his horse in the bush – stabbed the lion with a knife and killed it.  After a fine tea we bade her farewell and continued on our journey to Hoedspruit.

We arrived in time for supper and a quick look at the two giraffes that would be our companions on the return trip.  They were young, one male and one female.  They were about ten feet tall, and had large hooves that could deal out a nasty blow to the unwary that came too close to them.  I made a note of the radius of those front feet, and had no plans to hand out a friendly pat.  They were penned off from the other giraffes and were ready to be put into crates the next morning.  The rangers also had several young cheetah cubs that had been deserted by their mother for some reason, and were kept in a wire enclosure.  Ted said they had “rickets” caused by malnutrition and had weak back legs as a result.  They were bad tempered little chaps that hissed and spat at anyone who came near them.  The rangers wanted to nurse them back to health.  Hoedspruit later became known as a center for rehabilitating cheetahs. Supper was most welcome after a long day, and later, we sat around the campfire and listened to the rangers tell their stories – some of which were on the ‘tall’ side.  We slept in the open with some wool blankets the rangers had provided.  Memories of my Rhodesian army days drifted through my mind as I contended with the hard ground and I tried to get some sleep.

We started at 5.30 am the next morning after a good breakfast cooked on an open wood fire; eggs, boerevors and tomatoes.

The rangers herded the two giraffes down a narrow wood fenced walkway to the loading ramp.  We put the crates on the pickup truck and backed it up to the ramp. Each giraffe was prodded into its own crate and then a wood gate was dropped into secure slots behind them.  The crates were open at the top to allow for their long necks.  We were ready for the long trip back to Mlilwane.  It would be a slow drive, as we had to keep the dust to a minimum and not jostle them too much.  The clearance for the truck with the animals on it was about fourteen feet, and that height was to give us some problems that we had not foreseen.  We said our goodbyes and away we went, thrilled with the two new additions to the sanctuary.

Giraffes can go a day or two without water, but we did need to feed them.  That was easy, as all we had to do was to pull up under some low trees and they fed themselves while we sat in the shade on the side of the dirt road.  It was fun to watch them feed.  They wrapped their long, dark purple coloured tongues around the base of a small branch and then pulled a bunch of leaves off it into their mouths.  I don’t remember any lavish picnics along the way though we must have had something to eat like biltong (jerky) washed down with some lukewarm tea; ideal on a hot day. That was to be the least of our troubles, as we continued slowly on our journey.

The combination of the giraffes on the back of the truck and the many low telephones strung across the road was not a good one, and it really slowed us down.  We cut a sapling about ten long with a fork on the end and proceeded to raise the wires while Ted drove the truck underneath them. Toward the end of the trip, we came across a wire that was just too low for the “stick and lift” method so the wire had to be cut, for a good cause, of course.  With knowledge of that part of the country, that line may still be down, some forty years later.  In those days, most people were connected with “party lines” (everyone could listen into each other’s conversations) so we probably ticked off a number of people at the same time.

It was early evening by the time we reached the border post – it took all day to travel one hundred a fifty miles – and, much to our dismay, it had begun to rain, which complicated things for all of us, but particularly for Ted and Petros.  They had a much more difficult road ahead of them, even though it was only seventy miles.  The road they had to take was through the hills, and turned out to be muddy and slippery and gave them a hard time. I hated to leave them at this point.  They didn’t arrive back to Mlilwane until the next morning, so you can imagine how slowly they travelled with that precious cargo on board.  All I had to worry about was me, and that was to be enough.

I was tired, hungry and dirty: perfect conditions for a two hundred and fifty mile drive to Johannesburg in the rain.  If I drove straight through, I would get home by midnight, but I knew I couldn’t do that so I was on the lookout for a place to stop.  After about an hour I spotted a hotel that looked ideal for dinner and some sleep. As soon as they saw this disreputable character walk through the door any vacancies they had disappeared, and said they were full.  I was really ticked off.  That angry energy was good for another two hours on the road, after which I knew I had to stop. I was crossed eyed, I was so tired.  Perhaps the night clerk at the next hotel at which I stopped had relatives that looked like me; anyway, he gave me a room.  He promised to wake me up at five, which he did.  After a hot shower, I drove the rest of the way, refreshed.  I had breakfast at my flat in Hillbrow, changed, and went to work. I arrived just before eight.  How I made it through that day I will never know, and actually, I did no effective work until Wednesday.

Ted may have told me what his plan was for that weekend and maybe not.  I don’t remember.  I would just go when I was free for the weekend and do whatever was needed.   Each trip was different and filled with excitement, and in the long view, historic.

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HISTORY IN THE MAKING – A personal Odyssey by Roland Stanbridge – Part 8/8 – FINAL

Once a schoolboy hunter, Roland Stanbridge meets the legendary Ted Reilly at a time when conservation in Swaziland had just started to take off, later to become one the models of wildlife protection in Africa…

Continued… Part 8, (Final)

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A school outing at Hlane Royal National Park, 2013

As more and more groups of young schoolchildren came on visits to Mlilwane I realised what a treasure the sanctuary was for Swaziland. These kids were able to feel pride in their natural heritage.

On one occasion Ian Khama, son of the president of Botswana Sir Seretse Khama, visited Mlilwane at the age of 13 or 14. He had with him an entourage of personal attendants and security personnel. He was taken on a tour of the sanctuary and was immensely interested in all he saw.

Today it is Ian Khama who is president of Botswana. He is a champion of conservation, and he recently officially banned the hunting of wild game for sport throughout the country, with effect from the beginning of this month, January 2014. He was also a driving force behind the creation of the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Serowe. I like to think that the young Ian Khama was powerfully influenced by his visit to Mlilwane.

I finally left Mlilwane to go and study. I wanted more skills and knowledge. Over the coming years while working as a journalist I attended several university courses pursuing the earth sciences – geology, palaeontology, archaeology. I wanted to know more about earth history and the emergence of life on earth. I also wanted to know more about Africa, and studied African history, African government, and African Law.

But the ugly realities of apartheid occupied me as a journalist. Finally I went into exile in Sweden with my family, and in time became a journalism lecturer. My work took me around the world but I always made time to visit the deserts, the rainforests, the wildlife sanctuaries, and marine reserves.

Now I am retired and live up in the hills, deep in the forests of Sweden where my partner Marie, my daughter Aleah and I have a small horse farm. Our Friesian and Icelandic horses live in the open as a herd, among the wolves and elk and deer and lynx and foxes and badgers, with open shelters should they want cover from the rain or snow. They have no iron shoes nailed to their hooves. On our farm we try to practice ‘natural’ horsemanship, ‘natural’ beekeeping, and organic permaculture farming. All this has its roots in my days at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in Swaziland.

These days my heroes are nearly all conservationists, and include Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd who ceaselessly fights to protect dolphins and whales, Jane Goodall for her work to protect chimpanzees, Dian Fossey who worked to protect gorillas, Rachel Carson who advanced the global environmental movement, and of course the Reilly family of Swaziland.

With Petros Ngomane as his right-hand man, and Liz with her boundless enthusiasm and deep love for all living things by his side, Ted had an unbeatable team. His iron-willed determination and total focus on his goals prevailed. Together they came to reintroduce into Swaziland all those species that had disappeared, including lions. And as he grew up Ted and Liz’ son Mickey became an integral part of the team, and together they have developed the three Big Game Parks of SwazilandHlane Royal National ParkMlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and Mkhaya Game Reserve. It is one of the great conservation success stories of Africa.

Afterword – Roland, thank you for this rich history written in such a beautifully entertaining fashion.  A great beginning and inspiration for everyone to submit their stories!  Hope to see you in Swaziland in July!

HISTORY IN THE MAKING – A personal Odyssey by Roland Stanbridge – Part 7/8

Once a schoolboy hunter, Roland Stanbridge meets the legendary Ted Reilly at a time when conservation in Swaziland had just started to take off, later to become one the models of wildlife protection in Africa…

Continued… part 7/8

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Now that we were becoming known, there were many people who wanted to come along, for adventure, film making, learning capture skills and so on. Sometimes we had fun at their expense. Once Claudio, an Italian croupier from the Swazi Casino, who was renting a cottage at Mlilwane asked to be taken along, and wondered if it would be ‘safe’.

Probably.” I told him, ” For example, when you are out driving on the highway there is always the possibility you might have an accident. And when you are out catching with Ted Reilly there is always the possibility you might not have one”.  He didn’t seem to find this reassuring.

As we set off, Claudio sat calmly in the back of Jezebel and lit a cigarette. Very soon we encountered a lively herd of wildebeest and set off on a wild high speed chase, Liz whooping with excitement as we crashed through bushes and bounced over tree stumps.  Whenever possible Ted preferred to not use drugs, and our method with wildebeest was to speed up alongside the galloping animal. Someone in the passenger seat, often me, would grab it by a horn, while someone in the back would grab it by the tail. It was then easily subdued.

When we had accomplished this and came to a stop Claudio was sitting wide-eyed and shaking in the back of the Land Rover. ”You guys are f*****g crazy” he stuttered. We grinned. ”Where’s your cigarette Claudio?” asked Ted.  ”I swallowed it” replied Claudio. At least he was able to see the humour in the situation.

During this time at Hlane and Mlilwane I grew to love being in environments where the only sounds were singing birds, running streams, insects chirping, rain falling on leaves, wind rustling through the grass. All the time I was learning. I never stopped asking Ted questions – about the names of trees and birds and animals and their interactions with each other. I slowly came to understand the basics elements of ecology, seasonal cycles, the importance of predators, and much else. I actually began to care more about animals than people.

To be Continued… … Part 8 of 8

HISTORY IN THE MAKING – A personal Odyssey by Roland Stanbridge – Part 6/8

Once a schoolboy hunter, Roland Stanbridge meets the legendary Ted Reilly at a time when conservation in Swaziland had just started to take off, later to become one the models of wildlife protection in Africa…

Continued… Part 6/8

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In villages near Hlane a favourite bird delicacy was hornbill. Around Hlane there were two species, red-billed and yellow-billed hornbills. They were easily preyed upon because the females laid their eggs in tree hollows which were blocked off with mud cement by the males during incubation, leaving only a small hole for the male to pass food to the mother and chicks. Excreta from the female formed an easily detected white patch on the tree trunk, and villagers would keep these under observation. When the chicks were mature enough to fly out, the nest would be raided.

Ted sent his rangers to offer the villagers money to show where there were hornbill nests. He paid them enough to buy more meat than they would have got from the nest. This was a very successful project.

The birds were relocated to hollow trunks which we planted at Mlilwane. Sometimes there were chicks without mothers that had to be fed. I remember clearly being told by Ted to go catch a load of grasshoppers, chew them thoroughly, mix them with spittle, and feed them to the baby birds. During that breeding season there were many chicks that needed to be fed, and believe me, you will never ever meet anyone who has chewed as many grasshoppers as I have. Except maybe Liz. And don’t bother to try it. They taste awful.

To be Continued… … Part 7 of 8

HISTORY IN THE MAKING – A personal Odyssey by Roland Stanbridge – Part 5/8

Once a schoolboy hunter, Roland Stanbridge meets the legendary Ted Reilly at a time when conservation in Swaziland had just started to take off, later to become one the models of wildlife protection in Africa…

Continued… Part 5/8

We had hunted at night because it was easier to get close enough to animals to dart and catch them.  Most of the night action was in Mbuluzi Estates which belonged to the Hersov Family. Later, we set up camp under a big tree close to the Lebombo Mountains deep in the heart of Hlane, catching during the day and returning to Mlilwane when there were animals to deliver. We kept our provisions and equipment in tents, but unless it was raining we slept outside under the stars. Thinking back on it I am reminded of the words of a Bryan Adams song: ’These were the best days of my life.’

There was much to do, and Ted wasted no time. We began work at daybreak and ceased at dusk. There was no time off for breakfast or lunch. We ate only one meal a day, at night around the campfire. Most of us found this quite difficult at first, but one didn’t question Ted’s decisions. I doubt you could find nutritionists or dieticians or health advisers anywhere in the world who would recommend such a diet. But we soon got used to it, and I know I have never been more fit and healthy in my entire life.

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On occasions when a darted animal did not quickly succumb and had obviously not received the dose of M99 Ted would dart it a second time. Or if it was too stressed we would keep it under observation until Ted was satisfied that it was okay to leave it alone. But one morning after Ted had darted a zebra it ran off into thick brush and rocky terrain where Jezebel could not go. ”Follow it” he shouted to me. I jumped off the Land Rover and ran after the departing zebra. I ran and ran and ran. Ted had not said ”Follow it for a while”, so I just kept running for hours, through gulleys, over wide expanses of grass, dense bush, rocky mounds, following the zebra. That’s how it was working for Ted. All of us, Petros, Liz, Ralph, the game rangers and I believed implicitly in his judgment and just did whatever he wanted done. When I returned to camp very much later in the day Ted’s only question was ”Is the zebra okay?”

Sitting around the campfire at night was our time for relaxation. Ted would light up his pipe and begin telling us tales of the devastating massacres of animals in southern Africa by Dutch and British colonialists.  In Swaziland and the rest of South Africa vast herds of elephants, wildebeest, zebras, springbok, hartebeest, blesbok, other antelope and their predators were hunted almost to extinction to clear the fertile grasslands for agriculture and rid the country of tsetse fly, as well as for meat and the profit from selling animal parts – such as wildebeest tails, ostrich feathers, rhino horn and elephant tusks.

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Tin Miner’s Hut, Swaziland, Early 1900’s

My boyhood heroes were demolished as I learned how individual hunters, including Selous, had each shot hundreds of elephants. One of them was credited with having killed more than a thousand.  The stories of massive animal slaughter in Swaziland, mostly by hunters coming from South Africa, were equally distressing. Now the only remnants of the once gigantic herds were those few hundreds of animals living in Hlane.

”You want a new hero?”, asked Ted, ”I recommend Rachel Carson. Read her book Silent Spring”.  I did so a couple of years later, and was deeply affected by its tale of environmental degradation by humans. I was powerfully gripped by one of the opening statements:

“The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable…”

To be Continued… … Part 6 of 8

HISTORY IN THE MAKING – A personal Odyssey by Roland Stanbridge – Part 4/8

Once a schoolboy hunter, Roland Stanbridge meets the legendary Ted Reilly at a time when conservation in Swaziland had just started to take off, later to become one the models of wildlife protection in Africa…

Continued… Part 4/8

Our night raids into the royal hunting grounds – today’s Hlane Royal National Park – were exhilarating. We believed fervently in what we were doing. We were young and fit and considered ourselves invincible. And the adrenalin rush of the chase was equal, I am sure, to any of today’s extreme sports. The wilder it got, the more Liz would be laughing. I actually can’t remember any of us ever being scared at any time. Ted’s supreme confidence must have rubbed off on us.

But there was a dark and disturbing side to our sallies into the bush. We encountered increasing numbers of grievously wounded and suffering animals, either from gunshots or snares.

This is not pleasant reading, but I will briefly recount something of what occurred. On one occasion we came across a large kudu bull standing under a tree. His lower jaw had been shot away. He was starving to death. Once there was a zebra walking away from us. Not running. On examination we found it had a wire snare around a hind leg and attached to a heavy log, which the zebra had to drag along as it moved about. We encountered a wildebeest (brindled gnu) with a snare around its horns and attached to a tree trunk. There was a trampled circle of dust around the tree. It had been running around and around the tree for days. It was close to death. These animals had to be killed. We found another zebra just standing still and with no apparent injury. We took it back to Mlilwane where it died after a few days. Examination showed that it had been shot in the rear. A small .22 calibre bullet was lodged in its stomach.

I began to understand why animals almost everywhere fear humans.

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King Sobhuza ll – a wise and compassionate king

King Sobhuza ll knew well of Ted’s conservation efforts and approved of what he was doing at Mlilwane. He called Ted to Masundwini and told him to ‘do with Hlane what he had done with Mlilwane.”  At this crucial 1966 meeting Ted detailed the destruction being caused by poachers and urged that the king create the equivalent of a department of wildlife conservation with rangers who had the power of arrest. King Sobhuza ll relieved Chief Mlimi of Hlane gave Reilly Chief Sifuba as his lincusa.  The immediate implication of this was that Ted Reilly was now the official guardian of wildlife in Swaziland and adviser to the King, including the Royal hunting grounds of Hlane.  It also meant that he and his rangers could now track down and arrest poachers. This was a dramatic turning point for conservation in Swaziland. 

Ted’s rangers began seeking out and prosecuting those trading in the body parts of protected animals. I remember Petros trapping someone in Manzini who was selling the wings of eagles. At Hlane the rangers began a sustained campaign against poachers which continues to this day.

To be Continued … Part 5 of 8

 

HISTORY IN THE MAKING – A personal Odyssey by Roland Stanbridge – Part 3/8

Once a schoolboy hunter, Roland Stanbridge meets the legendary Ted Reilly at a time when conservation in Swaziland had just started to take off, later to become one the models of wildlife protection in Africa…

Continued… Part 3/8

So why are you catching the king’s zebra? I wanted to know. Ted told me a long story, about how King Sobhuza ll was not keen on hunting, how the guards of the royal hunting grounds were often accomplices in poaching. The once vast herds of animals had been reduced to just a few hundreds of zebra, wildebeest and other species. And the poaching pressure continued unabated. Those who did not have guns used wire snares, which they placed along the game paths and drinking places.  A man might set a hundred snares, then set out to check them. Perhaps he finds a large kudu in one snare. He kills it, cuts up the meat, and then leaves to sell it. Maybe he never returns. Yet nearly every one of those snares will eventually catch an animal, which will then suffer a long lingering death. Ted and his rangers had already removed tons of wire snares. Many thousands of them. For this reason he was catching animals and transferring them to the only place of safety – Mlilwane.

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It was about this time that I met one of Ted’s friends Liz Reynolds, later to become his wife, who was living in Mbabane. And a cousin of Ted’s, Ralph Girdwood. Together with Ted’s chief game ranger Petros Ngomane, we became the core game catching team.

We were out in the bushveld night after night, and I often fell asleep at my desk at the Times of Swaziland.  One day editor Bill Talbot said to me “You are at Mlilwane more often than you are here. Perhaps you would be better off working at Mlilwane than sleeping here?” I agreed. I left almost immediately.

Apart from its growing numbers of wildebeest, zebra, antelope and other game Mlilwane was also a sanctuary for wounded and abandoned animals. At the entrance gate lived Dracula, a white-backed vulture with a broken wing who would never fly again. He was a mean bird. I liked to visit him and stroke his head. Dracula tolerated this only because he figured if he slowly turned his head he could suddenly snap and bite my hand. Sometimes he succeeded and I left with a bleeding hand. His only other friend was the gate guard, Mthandazo, a kindly man who fed Dracula.

In the small Rest Camp lived Lady Jane, a large ferocious looking warthog. She had learned that if she sneaked up and suddenly appeared before unsuspecting tourists eating a meal they might run away and she could then enjoy their abandoned food.

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Lunch with the Reillys – Ted & Liz Reilly with Lady Jane (These days it is taboo to feed animals)

Often seen outside the Rest Camp was Twinkletoes, a large male ostrich, whose favourite occupation was chasing cars, bicycles, motorbikes, people and anything else that would depart at speed when he approached flapping his wings, bobbing his head up and down and hissing. We treated him with great respect. Ostriches can run very fast and deliver a mighty kick with their powerful legs.

One regular visitor was a beautiful tawny eagle that would come flying over the camp when Ted called. He would then throw a lump of meat high into the sky and the eagle would always catch it in the air.

By this time I had learned that Ted could imitate the calls of many animals and birds, and make them believe he was one of them. I still remember with amusement when Ian Goss, a professional hunter living in Pongola just south of Swaziland said to me “I am pretty sure that Reilly is more animal than human”.

The flow of animals in need never stopped, and looking after them was an integral part of life at Mlilwane. Once the Johannesburg Zoo called to say they had received two African lynx kittens but could not keep them. Liz and I drove to Jhb that same day and brought them back to Mlilwane where we cared for them until they were able to fend for themselves. We were given a serval kitten that was in danger of being killed by superstitious local hunters. We named him Spot and he became a favourite pet. When Spot was seven months old we were given a three month old female serval. The two servals became inseparable and eventually moved out together to live in the forested hills of Mlilwane. Once Ted confiscated a cheetah that was being kept in a house. It was weak and malnourished, but Liz nursed it carefully back to health, taking it for long daily walks to help regain its strength.

To be Continued… … Part 4 of 8