Conservation, Politics & The King’s White Muti Man – Ted Reilly

Ted Reilly is one of the most powerful people in the country. Ask any alleged or real poacher and the name Reilly sends shivers down their spine. Reily has escaped public scrutiny and legal restraint because he sees and knows himself to be powerful.

He owes much of his power to his role as supplier of plants and animals needed by the king for traditional rituals and muti (traditional medicine). He gives the Swazi Monarchy what he requests without trying to alter the plants and herbs.

He does not visit tangoma, or use muti himself. No royalist Swazi can really and truly be trusted to do this role hence has to be a white man or an outsider who does not 'hear the ancestors'. Reilly, for his part, knows his plants and animals too well and mistakes, such as providing the “wrong plant”, are minimised.

He supposedly meets with the king once a week with deliveries of orders, though sometimes his son, Jubela, goes because Reilly is far into his eighties.

The relationship between the Reillys and the royal family is long and predates the present monarch. In fact, the relationship started before independence when Reilly turned his family farm into a game reserve. The Mlilwane Story, a book published by the Reillys, shows him struggling to get the game reserve going.

The British were of little help but Sobhuza understood that Reilly could provide him with a steady supply of spiritually clean plants and animals for his rituals. This explains why he made him warden of Hlane, the king’s private hunting reserve near Simunye. A close relationship between the Reillys and the monarchy was born from there.

The relationship has continued to this day, and reliable sources report that there is a cold room at Mkhaya with a deep frozen leopard as well as many other animals that are difficult to catch reserved for royal rituals.

Mkhaya is the private reserve belonging to the Reilly family near Phuzamoya. Nowadays, the rangers at Nhlane say if lion parts are needed for muti then Jubela comes down and shoots one (which is easy, as they are kept in large fenced enclosures), and take it back to eLudzidzini.

According to an often forgotten story at Mlilwane, there were rhino horn poachers in the early eighties that Reilly was trying to catch. Himself, Barry Forbes and a South African police captain ambushed them at the Bend Inn hotel parking lot.

A shoot-out ensued and two poachers were killed. The Captain is unknown, Forbes is late, and Reilly is silent. What really happened is not clear because the case has never went to court. The widows of the murdered men have tried to get the case heard in vain because Reilly’s royal connection has kept the case off the books.

After this, Reilly was appointed to the then all-powerful Thursday Committee. The Thursday committee was a non-statutory structure parallel to the Judicial Service Commission which reported directly to the King. It was disbanded when the new Constitution came into force in 2005.

This committee decided on the appointment of Judges and had a huge influence on what laws go to parliament. There he used his influence to amend sections of the Game Act of 1953. This was eventually done in 1991. Reilley's tenure on the JSC ended in the early 2000s.

In the Act, game rangers were henceforth going to be allowed to shoot and kill anyone suspected of poaching without facing legal restraint. They literally are above the law. 

Because Reilly was a game ranger himself, this meant he too would be let off the hook for the Big Bend murders.

Hardly any country in the world has such controversial laws where human life is seen as expendable with no legal restraint. 

In picture: Ted Reily

Countries that are members of the United Nations use the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreement to regulate the international trade in wild animals and plants. CITES is the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

There has been a long argument between the Eswatini National Trust Commission (ENTC) and Reilly. It is mostly about power and who controls CITES. If you have a CITES permit, then moving wild animals, their parts or plants is legal and if you do not it is illegal – simply put.

To simplifying it further, if somebody has to provide a steady flow of various animal parts and herbs to the king it would be crucial that they also control CITES in the country. This allows them to bring items from around the world with a genuine permit.

After the Game Act was passed the King’s Office then mandated the administration of the Game Act and CITES to Big Game Parks (BGP). This is a private company owned by the Reillys and runs Mlilwane, Mkhaya, Hlane and the old Nisela (now renamed kaMsholo).

This makes eSwatini the only country in the world where CITES, and the associated national conservation laws, are run by a private company. Big Game Parks rangers have also been accused of torturing people. There was even a parliamentary commission of enquiry into this but nothing came of it.

Controversial conservationist

Reilly indeed has protection in high places, and it seems he values his royal connections above conservation.  As a conservationist, he would or should know better that putting elephants into Hlane was a disaster. This was done to please the Queen Mother and not for conservation reasons.

At Hlane there were many elephants in a small area and the animals have wreaked havoc on the local environment. You can see this clearly in the dead trees when travelling along the Siteki/Simunye road through Hlane.

Mlilwane too is a biodiversity nightmare – it is full to the brim with alien invasive species like guavas, jacarandas, gum trees and wattles. The grass at Hlane is almost all gone, replaced by bushes from overgrazing. The only animals that visitors see are the lion and elephant in fenced areas. At Mkhaya, animals are in big fences like a cattle farm.

This is not the only example of bending conservation to please royalty. CITES is supposed to stop the illegal trade in endangered animals and their products. Leopards are rare and protected. Trading their skins is illegal. This has been the case since CITES started in 1975.

However, in eSwatini royalty and their hangers on need leopard skins for Incwala and other ceremonies. The country has very few leopards left not nearly enough to supply the needs of royalty and traditionalists. These animals are poached in Mozambique and then smuggled into the country.

Despite the CITES ban on leopard products, the skins are openly sold in Mbabane and around the country. Many men wear them at national festivals such as Incwala. Reilly is doing nothing at all to stop the illegal leopard skin trade because it would risk his relationship with the king. For this reason alone it remains a mystery why CITES is still with Big Game Parks and the Reillys.

A few months ago the king called a meeting of all nature reserves in the northern lowveld, including Hlane, Mlawula, Mbuluzi, Shewula and Sand River. In this meeting, he complained that when he visited he never saw any animals and his rationale was that this was because there were too many different small reserves.

The king's solution was to put them all under one management as a single game reserve. Reilly obviously had no idea this was coming, and it was becoming obvious that perhaps he was not King Mswati’s man on conservation anymore. In essence, the game was shifting.

Putting all northern nature reserves under one management is probably a plan to ‘give’ conservation to one of the royal family members as such an arrangement would then give royalty monopoly control on government contracts and a big share of funding.

This has happened in multiple capital infrastructure initiatives such as road construction where Kukhanya construction  eventually got the tender to build the conference center in Zulwini. This is how the royal family feeds public tax money to themselves – private capital projects are the perfect way to channel public money into the private purse.

But there is more to the story. For many years Reilly has farmed rhinos, keeping them at Mkhaya – the private nature reserve. Rhinos can be farmed just like cattle because they have horns, valuable horns.

If you cut a rhino horn carefully it grows back, and you can harvest horns several times during a single rhino’s life. These horns sell for up to $ 20 000 per kilo, making them more expensive than cocaine or gold by weight.

For years the Reilly’s have been cutting the horns off their rhino to stop them from being poached – an effective anti-poaching measure around the region. Reilly has many cut horns in storage, as he has been farming and cutting rhino horns for thirty years or more years yet having never sold any because it is not legal across international borders.

He has therefore accumulated a treasure trove of rhino horns for himself. Some of these rhinos, however, were donated to the country not to the Reilly family. The horns are conservatively estimated to be worth somewhere around forty to fifty million emalangeni, perhaps even more on the black market. This is why Reilly is so so keen to lobby at CITES meetings to make trading in rhino horns legal.

He wants to cash in his lifetime stash and walk away with a fortune.

Meanwhile, rumours and rumblings around the Lobamba Lomdzala area (where many Mlilwane employees live) suggest that the front half of Mlilwane is being “taken” in order to build a new palace and royal residence – and this is the reason why BGP is investing more in Mlilwane north and sending some of its animals to the newly purchased Nisela farm.

This may or may not be true, but given the royal connections and favours owed it is not difficult to imagine. It will be interesting to see how the dynamic plays out.

At the end of the day, we live in a country where we urgently need to protect and strengthen our biodiversity, nature and wildlife for a wide variety of reasons– but this should be done in an open, transparent way that also benefits all emaSwati and the nation as a whole. It will be interesting to see where the real truths in this “industry” lie now that the winds of change are blowing, and previously taken-for-granted agreements are starting to be exposed.

Reily was called several times for a comment on this story and his phone went unanswered.

NB: For feedback, comments, suggestions, story tips and even write for us email us at