How did you end up as a conservationist?
As a young boy, I grew up at Mlilwane which used to be my family’s farm. Then I went to Hilton College in Natal which is located on its own large nature reserve where natural history was part of my school experience.
That was a unique privilege for any boy, and after school I started working at Natal Parks in Giant’s Castle in the Drakensberg.
Then I was hired by Mala Mala, in the days when it was a hunting area. At the age of 19, I worked as warden of Sabi Sands Game Reserve near Kruger, then went to Zambia to work on a concession near the Kafue national Park.
The area I controlled was 400 000 hectares, and had many miles of river frontage on the Kafue river. The nearest small town was 30 miles away. I had my camp right on the Kafue river.
Then I volunteered for Operation Noah on Lake Kariba’s northern bank in Zambia, when Kariba dam was filling up. We rescued hundreds of wild animals that were trapped by rising waters of the dam when they closed off the Zambezi River.
Then my mother wrote and said I should come back to the farm to help out, which I didn’t want to do, but I felt compelled to do.
But I couldn’t live without wildlife, I just couldn’t. At the time the Swazi wildlife had almost been wiped out. So we caught some impalas and brought them to Mlilwane.
I tried to get the British Government (the then-ruling colonial power) to set aside land somewhere in Swaziland as a national park. I surveyed the entire country with Professor R.H. Compton, the former head of Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens who was then compiling a list of flora in the region.
We presented the options, but the government wasn’t interested in my proposal. Incredibly, they said there wasn’t a need for a national park. They said that because Kruger was to the north in the Transvaal and Hluhluwe to the south in Natal, the people of Swaziland didn’t need their own park.
So we turned our family farm Mlilwane into the country’s first wildlife sanctuary. (In 1908 the south and north east of Swaziland was proclaimed as protected areas, but only in name without any enforcement, and after the First World War, those areas were promptly deproclaimed and given as farms to returning soldiers.)
In 1964, Mlilwane was proclaimed, and Hilda Stevenson-Hamilton (the wife of the famous Kruger warden James Stevenson-Hamilton) opened it, alongside the campfire which has been burning ever since, night and day, using gum and wattle as firewood.
King Sobhuza supported the idea of Mlilwane as a game reserve and added Hlane to my responsibilities. Hlane was proclaimed in 1967 and Mkhaya in 1982. Fifty years on from the beginning, it is difficult to believe how far we have come with 4% of Swaziland under proclaimed protection and another 4% under private conservancy husbandry.
What is the future for wildlife and conservation in Africa?
What we don’t protect now, we will lose. We are not going to replace easily what is lost. There is just too much competition.
If you stand on top of the Lebombo mountains in Swaziland, and you look west, there is more sugarcane than bushveld. When I was growing up, there used to be a dirt road on the horizon, and there were so few cars driving past every day, that depending on the time of day, when someone drove past you had a good idea of who was driving. Now, there’s a national highway, and there is development as far as you can see.
Unfortunately, every proposed solution in conservation tends to address the results, not the causes of the problems. Because it’s politically incorrect to address the causes. Which politician is going to talk about curbing population growth?
Human sprawl is the problem, and as far as it spreads, nature dies. Even if the population doesn’t expand, economic expansion also generally destroys wildlife and habitat, inadvertently or not. That is the reality.
The only places where you don’t have conservation problems are where there are no people, or very few of them. When people arrive en masse, that’s when nature generally starts dying. So it’s a very sensitive issue.
And at this stage, society generally values human greed over preserving nature. They ask the question, who is more important, people or animals? They miss the point. It is not a question of who is more important – parks are not only for animals – parks are also for people!
For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.
Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.