2014 marks 50 years from the day a young Ted Reilly took it upon himself to turn his back garden into what is now one of Africa’s most accessible wildlife reserves.

On the 12th July 1964, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary opened to the public. This day marked the beginning of formal conservation in the Kingdom of Swaziland. At the time Swaziland was still a British Protectorate (Independence came in 1968). The country’s wildlife resource had been severely depleted and existed in remnant herds, largely on private farms. Wildlife was seen as vermin, a threat to the economic wealth of the country and thus there was no willingness to embrace the concept of conservation. One man, Ted Reilly, had watched the demise of Swaziland’s wildlife heritage. His experiences across the border in South Africa and further away in Zambia reminded him of how wild Africa could be. Reilly dreamed of a park system for Swaziland, safeguarding the rich diversity and beautiful landscapes.

With little support from the then British Government, it was down Ted to make it happen. With the support of Swaziland King behind him, a small force of rangers, and one, yes just one, land rover, Mlilwane was born. In no way was this an overnight operation though; conservation in Swaziland had a shaky and humble beginning. 

When there was no game.
Swaziland, with her rich habitat diversity, was once regarded as a hunter’s paradise, an un-tameable expanse with lion, elephant, buffalo and the likes roaming free. There are records of hunting licenses being sold for GBP 1 per season in 1906 and of a wildebeest “plague” in the 1930’s (more likely a natural migration) during which soldiers were deployed with machine guns to massacre the ‘vermin’ to safeguard cattle farms. Water troughs were often poisoned with the same aim, though killing much more than wildebeest and the 1940’s saw the Impala Express exporting 1000 impala carcasses per week! In a short two decades, by the 1950’s, the fruits of Swaziland’s land had depleted immeasurably to all but the odd scrub hare and duiker. Game had been plundered and removed for agriculture. Swaziland had all but lost her wildlife heritage. But, things were set to change. As a mere 20 year old Ted Reilly noticed an ever decreasing wildlife population each and every time he returned to his homeland. He had a dream to turn things around. Setting out almost entirely on his own, he followed his passion and five years later, aged 25, the now globally renowned conservationist opened Mlilwane.

50 Years of Conservation

From 1960 Mlilwane started to grow, with habitat modification and the relocation of animals one-by-one. Work started at the beginning of the decade by putting up a large perimeter fence; keeping wildlife in and potentially harmful humans out. Once all the core elements of the reserve had been put in place, animal re-introduction began, the first phase of which include introduction of Impala, zebra, waterbuck, ostrich and kudu. After more animals were re-introduced including warthog and Nyala later in the decade, the reserve was officially opened by Hilda Stevenson-Hamilton. A year on, 1965, the first white rhinos were introduced. Click here to view the full Reilly Timeline.

Re-introduction and on going conservation work continued for the next 40 years, and is still an on-going project now. Swaziland’s reserves at present have all of the big five game animals; elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and hippos. The reserves are also home to some of Africa’s most iconic species. But, the work by Ted Reilly had a bigger impact than just a single park in what initially was a quite small back garden.

The concept of Swazi conservation and the dream Ted first had began in Mlilwane, but it was the success of this first project that lead on to the founding of Hlane Royal National Park, the establishment of the Swaziland National Trust Commission, and Mkhaya Game Reserve – now one of the worlds best Rhino success stories. With what had now become a flourishing country of wildlife and game parks, the organisation Big Game Parks was then established in the 1990’s as a private organisation, encouraging the establishment of further reserves such as Mbuluzi, Nisela, and Phophonyane. Today Big Game Parks is the delegated authority on the Game Act and CITES and operates a highly effective anti-poaching unit which is a key element to an on-going conservation success story.

Celebrating half a century.
Ted Reilly’s initial ambition for Mlilwane was to create a reserve where families could enjoy the wonders of Swaziland’s animal heritage, and to provide an environment of learning and education. With such an important date in the calendar this year, its vital that Ted’s work is properly commemorated, and that is just what Big Game Parks have set out to do. Over the next couple of months up until the big celebration on July 12th there will be a number of family days, where children under 13 can enter Mlilwane and Hlane Parks completely free of charge. With a great range of activities such as crafts, safari walks, treasure hunts and lots of conservation themed games, it’s an opportunity for those both living in the country, and visiting from abroad to discover just what this 50 year old vision has now developed into.

Big Game Parks Family Days will take place every second weekend of the month from February to June 2014:

Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary's Family Days:
Saturday 12th April
Saturday 10th May
Saturday 14th June

View Schedule

Hlane Royal National Park's Family Days:
Sunday 13th April
Sunday 11th May
Sunday 15th June

View Schedule

Exciting educational activities kick off with face painting at 13h00. An open craft table will be available, exploring the art of reusing rubbish. Our field guides will be hosting fun child-specific nature-based activities for a limited number of children between 14h00 and 16h30, for which pre-booking through Big Game Parks Central Reservations is essential. These limited activities will attract a fee of E60 per child.  
To book please call +268 2528 3943/4 or email

Over the next couple of months we’ll be revealing decade by decade the success of Mlilwane and the development of Swaziland’s Parks. Make sure you’re subscribed to our mailing list and following us on facebook and twitter for the latest updates. We’ll also be revealing the plans for July 12th very soon!