By Guest Writer and Bird About the Bush, Beatrice the Bee-Eater
Previously on the Swazi Bush Telegraph…
In the first of our tails from Swaziland you became acquainted with Tsandziwe, a young Roan Antelope blossoming at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in the Kingdom of Swaziland thanks to the charity called Back to Africa, or as she and her herd know it, The No. 1 Animals’ Dating Agency. Tsandziwe explained why endangered African species so urgently require the services of a dating agency due to genetic bottle-necks now occurring in the wild and how zoos around the globe can play a vital role in preventing extinctions by signing up some of their hunky, unrelated animals for translocation ‘back to Africa’. She also let you in on the exciting news that a rare and special creature from England, going by the name of Stephen Fry, would be arriving soon to present a BBC documentary called Last Chance to See about animals on the brink of extinction – now that’s something to tweet about!
I am a White-Fronted Bee-Eater, a bright and beautiful bird. However, it’s not just my vivid plumage that makes me one of Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary’s most colourful characters. I also happen to be in the know, if you know what I mean which is precisely why I, Beatrice, have been appointed to tell you all about the home that I share with Swaziland’s Roan Antelope and an abundance of other wildlife both great and small. You can find me most frequently mingling with the other bee-eaters by Mlilwane’s mirror lake with it’s sunbaking hippopotamus family and open, yellow mouthed crocs, but I know the entire sanctuary intimately and, I might add, am as adept at catching snippets of absorbing conversation as I am bees and other flying insects.
My daily swoop across Mlilwane’s game dense savanna keeps me in the know and it’s magnitude of biodiversity never fails to renew my spirit. I flit past all kinds of wondrous creatures, including a species known as tourists who are quite harmless. They tend to point a lot and hold little boxes that flash in front of their faces. Occasionally I stop at one of my favourite perches and, over the incessant insectal hum of the bush with it’s enticing promises of a tasty meal, I cock my head and listen to Milwane’s wild sounds. I hear a myriad of calls, the hooves of zebra galloping on the plains below and impala rams as they contend their territories with clashing horns and warning grunts. Flying in the sinking light, I weave between the succulent aloe plants and termite sky scrapers, adding my own shrill to the acoustics, “Kwaank-kwani-kwani!”.
Here at Mlilwane, there are few predators and so tourists may encounter some of the tamest wild animals in all of Africa by foot, bicycle or on horseback. So tame in fact that on the evening of the Vagabond Adventurer’s arrival (Lucie and Lachlan only. No dogs are allowed here I’m afraid, not even adventure hounds sponsored by Hill’s Pet Food.) a close nyala friend of mine, normally a shy, thicket loving animal, boldly forgot her manners and joined them for dinner uninvited! As if polishing off Lachlan’s cous cous was not naughty enough, she rudely licked the plate before tip-toeing off into the night. This uncouth behaviour aside, the large herds of wildebeest, warthogs and bambis grazing unthreatened on the horizon seem to foster in our human visitors a deep affinity with nature and a kinship with all life.
Human visitors are essential for Mlilwane’s survival. They sustain the park financially and best of all cause little harm to the environment leaving only with enduring memories. However, that is not to say that it is expensive to come and visit us. On the contrary, entrance fees are deliberately low in price so that this natural remnant of paradise may be within everyones reach. The Vagabond Adventurers slept in a sort of nest on top of their car but there are varying levels of accommodation to suit every pocket from traditional beehive huts to the colonial luxury of Reilly’s Rock with views fit for a king or even a Stephen Fry.
Back to Africa’s reintroductions of Roan Antelope in to Swaziland have made the herd here at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary a truly cosmopolitan crowd, deriving from as far away as Marwell Zoological Park in the United Kingdom and Zoo Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic where there are no wild bee-eaters like me. Roan Antelope once inhabited these very plains but were wiped out, along with many other species, during the senseless slaughter that took place here under colonial rule. Swazis had hunted animals for centuries to feed and clothe themselves using traditional, humble weapons like spears, only killing what they needed in order to survive. It was a different matter entirely when foreigners arrived from far and wide with guns and no regard for Swaziland’s limited bounty. As recently as 1950 the Kingdom’s game was still plentiful but in the space of a decade it had almost disappeared with entire species becoming locally extinct. My dear four-legged friends did not stand a chance.
Having finally succumbed to a hunter’s murderous snare, the remains of Swaziland’s last Roan Antelope were recovered in 1961 by a man who loves nature called Ted Reilly. Thinking of future generations, he had appealed to the British government to create a national park in Swaziland to provide a safe haven for it’s creatures. They had refused believing that South Africa’s Kruger Park was near enough and so why bother. With great foresight and no other space available, Ted Reilly converted his highly profitable farm, Mliliwane, into Swaziland’s first protected area in an attempt to preserve the Kingdom’s wildlife heritage. Farming ceased (as did income), game proof fences were erected and Swaziland’s remaining animals were captured and given refuge at Mlilwane. Those small numbers of animals became plentiful again and gradually lost species have been restored.
I was in hot pursuit of a delicious looking butterfly on the afternoon in 2004 when the first group of Roan Antelope from Marwell Zoological Park in the United Kingdom touched down in Africa. With grass beneath their hooves and the warmth of Swaziland’s sun on their backs, I watched from a nearby mopane tree as they surveyed their new home and for the first time smelt something sweeter than fresh hay, Mlilwane’s pure air meant freedom. More Roan Antelope joined them later, again from Marwell and then from Zoo Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic. The population, which began with a total of eleven captive bred animals, has now swelled to over thirty. On behalf of all Mlilwane’s residents I would like to commend Marwell Zoological Park in the United Kingdom and Zoo Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic for their donations to Back to Africa’s Roan Project and for giving us these special friends, even if it did mean that I lost out on that butterfly.
In their support of Back to Africa, the Vagabond Adventurers had come to Mlilwane to visit the Roan Project. Ted Reilly showed them around himself and answered their questions. Perching on a nearby fence, I asked two quarrelsome glossy starlings to shut their beaks and strained to listen to his measured words as he explained why Roan Antelope all over Africa have become so rare when other species have managed to survive similar challenging circumstances. “Well,” he began softly, “they are not a high density species which immediately restricts their numbers. They are very selective grazers so they can’t take too much competition. Conditions have to be quite ideal for them to survive. They react negatively to any constraints, much more negatively than high density species like impala would for instance. They are far less tolerant of restraints than most animals.”
Re-establishing 7th and 8th generation zoo born Roan Antelope in Swaziland has not been easy, “The smaller your group, the bigger your problems and the less chance there is of success.” Ted told them. It can be tough for the Roan Antelope too he went on, “They are exposed to ticks which they are not in zoos. They are exposed to hunger, to cold and wet and all the other things that they had forgotten about. So you have got to reacclimatise them. They’ve got to get comfortable with the hardships in nature and there are plenty of hardships.” At that moment Tsandziwe pushed in with her strong head demanding everyones attention. She finds being scratched behind her large independently moving ears very much to her liking and Lucie and Lachlan were happy to oblige.
To end the most magical day, Ted invited Lucie and Lachlan to Reillys Rock to call the bush babies from the trees and feed them fruit. It was way past my nest time but I couldn’t tear myself away as the small primates, newly woken from their slumber, made there way slowly down the tin roof. Cold tiny digits gripped Lucie’s own similar, but much larger hand that held a sticky banana as she asked Ted if he had a favourite creature. He replied sincerely “Whichever I am watching at the time.” Furred, feathered or scaled, Ted cares for us all, from the tiniest ants that he urges hikers to avoid treading on, to the strapping hippos that feed daily, much to the enjoyment of watching children, by Mlilwane’s restaurant, Hippo Haunt. He knows that mankind’s fate is interwoven with nature and that preserving wild places and wild creatures will ensure that future generations of humans may experience a life of quality rather than one spent solely in the pursuit of survival.