Barry and Sonya Theunisan own and run a development company and have built around 24 000 houses in communities across KwaZulu-Natal – working with Indunas and amaKosi for over 20 years. During this time, they have drafted and further developed the policy for the National Department of Human Settlement and established the blueprint for developing rural housing.
In 2010, while Barry was at a site meeting for a housing development for the Mthembu community, he stood, overlooking the tribal land, and asked iNkosi Mthembu what he was doing with all this land. Barry suggested that he establish a game reserve to join with the pristine wilderness north of the river (leading to Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park), to which the iNkosi replied, “Yes! Good Idea Mpunzi”.
“Mpunzi” is Barry’s Zulu name – meaning Duiker, a name he was given as a child growing up not 40 km from mFulaWozi Wilderness near Kwambonambi. Having spent his childhood in the area, Barry has a deep passion for the surrounding communities and the preservation of the land and its “rewilding”.
There are 10 amaKhosi surrounding the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park (HiP) and the opportunity to expand this pristine wilderness was a long-time dream of iNkosi Biyela. His grandfather had wanted to establish a game reserve with their clan land in the days of Dr Ian Player, as he realised the value in tourism and conservation. So, when iNkosi Mthembu approached the other amaKosi regarding this plan, iNkosi Biyela was the first to wholeheartedly agree to the vision of rewilding the land and creating the private wilderness area to join into HiP.
Following on from iNkosi Biyela, iNkosi Mthembu approached iNkosi Mthethwa who was 86 years old at the time and fondly remembered Barry’s father and grandfather, having been neighbours with the Theunisan and Rattray families (cousins) for decades. With a shared history and love for the local community and land, iNkosi Mthethwa had a wealth of stories to tell and a keen sense of pride and legacy in being part of the growing group of amaKosi to commit land to this shared conservation dream under Barry’s counsel.
With the growing momentum toward creating this ground-breaking private wilderness that backs onto a World Heritage site – iNkosi Zulu and iNkosi Malaba joined to add their land into the Umfolozi Big Five Trust. The Big Five refers to the “Big Five” chiefs who committed to this rewilding plan.
So today, 16 000 hectares of community land has been placed in the Umfolozi Big Five Trust that is being incorporated with HiP. Fences are being moved, brought down and new fences established to create mFulaWozi Wilderness. At present, the reserve stands at 6 000 hectares with imminent expansion to include iNkosi Zulu’s land and the development of Camp Zulu. Thereafter, iNkosi Malaba and Mthethwa’s land will be incorporated into the wilderness area and more camps and lodges developed in partnership with those communities.
In addition to the partnership with the various communities, the Theunissen’s have a valuable and productive relationship with Ezemvelo Wildlife (the KwaZulu-Natal Environmental Management agency that manages HiP). As part of the agreement with the Umfolozi Big Five Trust, Ezemvelo manages certain aspects of the environment and wildlife. This includes a shared anti-poaching unit and alien plant removal teams who support the sustainable management of the area.
Looking to the future – the Theunissen’s share a vision with each iNkosi, Induna, and community, as well as Ezemvelo, to firmly establish this wilderness. Protecting and preserving the land will create a sustainable income and secure future for the surrounding communities and the wilderness. This vision is entrenched and fast becoming a reality at mFulaWozi Wilderness.