For the purposes of this section, we define Community as the greater human community within Eswatini. This goes beyond rural communities, to the national duty of providing natural areas for conservation, nature education and recreation for all Swazis. Between the three parks we manage, we ensure that we cater for people in all economic brackets.
Beginning with Mlilwane, Big Game Parks has set the scene in many aspects, pioneering conservation, eco-tourism and nature-based events. This in itself is a service to the greater Swazi community as motivation and trend setting.
Conservation Awareness Campaigns
In the 1970's Mlilwane created and invested heavily in the National Environmental Education Programme (NEEP), knowing it was cornerstone to the survival of the environment. During the 1980's the official NEEP programme left Mlilwane, although school visits continued every year. For many years Big Game Parks left national education and awareness to the government, handling only urgent matters such as Game Act awareness. In 2014, we began media campaigns around the 50th anniversary of conservation in Eswatini (coinciding with Mlilwane's) and have continued with these, having received an extremely positive response and recognizing how knowledge-hungry our nation is.
With regards the Game Act, poaching and human-animal conflict, we have embarked on media sensitization, law enforcement programmes and training with the Royal Eswatini Police and general public awareness.
Game Act Implementation & "Problem Animal" Control
Without government subsidy, Big Game Parks conducts nation-wide "problem animal" work, with crop damage being the major complaint. Most of the animals involved are not easy to remove, requiring extended travel, time and effort. Hippo cannot be darted safely, taking months to monitor and catch. Similarly crocodiles are baited and removed to conservation areas. Vagrant lion and elephant from South Africa and Mozambique have kept our rangers busy from time to time. Advising and assisting communities is a constant reality.
It is not uncommon for a Swazi never to have seen an impala, warthog or anything other than mongooses, monkeys and blue duiker. The siSwati names for the different species are disappearing at an alarming rate, with incorrect names often used in ignorance. And yet the Swazi culture is so interwoven with nature, from storytelling to architecture, language to remedies and cultural dress to national ceremonies. The parks provide the Swazi people with an opportunity to witness and experience their own national heritage, which is fast being reduced to conserved areas. Our parks play a role in national ceremonies such as Butimba (see below). The symbolism of animals in the Swazi culture highlights the link to nature – The royal symbols, the lion and elephant, the army being the buffalo and the sacred reverence held for the leopard.
Many do not recognize that the Nguni Cattle were literally saved from extinction in Eswatini, thanks to the foresight of King Sobhuza ll who commanded the collection of remaining pure animals. In truth, our Mkhaya Nguni are often seen as foundation stock in most successful Southern African herds today. This intriguing Nguni story is told in our Conservation Projects section.
Each of our parks has a recycling process where we employ someone to sort glass, cans, paper and plastic. These are then transported to the relevant recycling depots in Matsapha. The glass is sent directly to Ngwenya Glass to be made into incredible craft and glassware, in itself a conservation Fair Trade project.
Employment and Skills Development
There is a growing belief that employment and skills development are a duty and not really regarded as a contribution to the greater community. In a third world country, this is far from reality. Jobs and skills are gold. Big Game Parks has pioneered many jobs in Eswatini through our parks themselves, internal training programmes and by initiating the eco-tourism and conservation sectors, where guides and hospitality staff are in demand. In fact many operations in Eswatini began with at least one member of staff who had past through our parks and gained knowledge and skills.
Hlane plays an important role in cultural conservation, providing eco tourism and recreation that is accessible to the greater Swazi nation, valuable protein supply and is becoming an eco-events destination.
To enable local rural schools to visit Hlane and see their national royal symbols, the lion and the elephant, we offer heavily subsidized entry fees, provide a guide who jumps on their bus for a tour in certain areas of the park. Hlane sees around 13000 school children and teachers from around Eswatini every year.
Cultural Significance – Butimba
For anything to be sustained, it needs to hold value of some sort for the people involved. At the time when Hlane was proclaimed, Eswatini’s wildlife heritage had been depleted through commercial hunting to such an extent that the Bhutimba Royal Hunt, an important unifying event of the Swazi regiments, was almost irrelevant. Through conservation, the populations grew to such a degree that the Butimba once again became a reality, deepening the cultural value of conservation. This event is called by His Majesty, and has adopted parameters such as kerfews and zones in more modern times, but the core of this age-old tradition is still intact.
Successful conservation results in population growth and given the hard boundaries of parks, surplus animals. In order to maintain environmental balance within the reserve, animals are removed for live sale or culled for meat. Swazis place a high value on venison from a cultural perspective, and the world has long recognized the nutritional value of wild protein. Venison harvested on our parks is used through our restaurants and made available to the nation through carcass sales. Whole carcasses are sold at a cheaper rate than beef, and the skin and horns are then used as desired. Indirectly, making venison both available and affordable, there is perhaps less reason to poach.
Hlane has contributed to local communities through cultural Umphakatsi tours where possible. Various attempts have been made to develop homestead tours, but the distance is limiting.
Hlane has been graced by a few events organized by third parties. The 3 Reserves MTB Classic has become an annual Lebombo Conservancy event organized by Mbuluzi Game Reserve and other events have moved through Hlane. In 2016, Big Game Parks hosted our #ResolutionRun on Hlane spreading local tourism into the lowveld, until 2019, when the introduction of bigger game in the area created concern. The event was a great success, but has moved back to Mlilwane for the forseeable future.
Mlilwane is a unique Sanctuary which provides eco tourism and recreation that is both accessible to the greater Swazi nation and plays a leading role in eco-tourism in Eswatini. With the many activities, the skills grown at Mlilwane have benefited the national tourism asset. Mlilwane hosts a number of outdoor events that are growing in popularity, providing much needed nature-based recreation. The watershed area of Mlilwane North is becoming increasingly valuable to the adjacent towns and settlements.
Mlilwane is situated between the major towns of Mbabane and Manzini, therefore easily accessible to many local schools. Mlilwane offers heavily subsidized entry fees, provides a guide who jumps on their bus for a tour around the plains and shows Jezebel, video of early conservation efforts in Eswatini. Mlilwane sees about 13000 school children and teachers from around Eswatini every year.
Since the early 1990’s, Mlilwane recognized the value in cultural tourism, negotiating with our Chief to provide tours to her Umphakasti (chief’s homestead) in our neighbouring community. The extended benefits that this project creates are often unquantified or taken for granted – including sponsorship programmes created by guests. These have recently been expanded to include the Esitjeni Community Walk, and a pilot programme which will train community guides and establish job opportunities within the community. Opportunities to develop similar projects alongside Mlilwane North are currently being investigated.
Events & Recreation
Events are great fun! By creating an event on a park, we enhance the value of the park in the eyes of the greater community through participation. People love gathering for purpose, especially if its fun! Mlilwane is well known for the Imvelo MTB Classic, the first of its kind in Eswatini and an event that brings multiplier benefits, including large rural community projects.
Our entertaining Big Game Parks Annual Sibhaca Competition, where our staff from the three parks compete passionately against each other, is a great way of conserving the electric Swazi dance form. The opportunity is extended to the next generation, with employees’ children often being brought into the mix. To keep relevant in a digital age, and in an effort to inspire the youth to explore the outdoors, Mlilwane launched a series of #LookCloser Instameets in 2015. Perhaps a little before its time in the Swazi environment with challenging internet and very expensive mobile platforms, we believe these events will grow in popularity and assist in creating the demand to improve technology – and in our own way, grow the culture of #LookCloser.
Ad Hoc Projects & Facilitation
Our guests are often touched deeply through interaction with our neighbouring communities, resulting in small projects and sponsorships after their stay. Mlilwane has facilitated many smaller projects from school painting and renovations, school uniform purchase and distribution, tuition sponsorship, building classrooms and ablutions and skills development programmes. All of these are informal, but add great value to Eswatini and in each, we endeavor to impart conservation and sustainability ethics. And in every project, we learn valuable lessons too!
Mlilwane North is a valuable watershed area, with strong Highveld streams and springs feeding into the rivers in the valley below. Being within a conservation area, the integrity of these water sources is intact. With the growth of the human population and the influx of people into the exploding Ezulwini Valley, the pressure on water supplies and the need for clean potable water is escalating. The conservation of Mlilwane North and safeguarding the purity of the streams is going to prove essential and more difficult as time goes on.
Mkhaya is a conservation-intensive reserve, which extends benefits to select neighbouring communities and contributes to national conservation in Eswatini.
Natural Resource Harvesting
Since its inception, Mkhaya Game Reserve has worked with neighbouring rural communities on natural resource harvesting. The lowveld is a low rainfall area and as human populations grow outside the park, so the grass and plant reserves diminish and people look to the parks for natural resources.
Thatching grass is a prime example, and almost annually, we allow ladies to come in under supervision, depending on resource levels. We adopt a 1-for-1 approach, where for each bale they cut, they take one home to use or sell and leave one for Mkhaya. Big Game Parks is a willing buyer for the second bale at market price.
Water Projects & Community Infrastructure
Mkhaya has worked with the Minister of Agriculture, the local Chiefs and MP’s and a Canadian-based aid organization ‘Swazi Kids” to assist a number of neighbouring communities in notoriously dry areas. These projects began in 2008 (?), drilling boreholes and supplying 10,000 litre water tanks to the communities. Recently Swazi Kids built a classroom in the XXX area, facilitated by Mkhaya Game Reserve.
Successful conservation results in population growth and given the hard boundaries of parks, surplus animals. In order to maintain environmental balance within the reserve, animals are removed for sale or culled for meat. Swazis place a high value on venison from a cultural perspective, and the world has long recognized the nutritional value of wild protein. We sell entire carcasses at a cheaper rate than beef, and the skin can then be used as desired. Indirectly, making venison both available and affordable, there is perhaps less reason to poach.
Mkhaya operates on a high-intensity logistics model, leaving little capacity for managing community tourism. However, with our good relations with local schools and churches, we have arranged for group visits and interaction when requested.