An American philanthropist and conservationist whose formative years were spent in the African bush, returned after 35 years to establish a wildlife sanctuary on behalf of her foundation, Khumbula Thina Trust, which means "Remember Us" in the Zulu language.
The Trust was initiated and funded by Fleur Wales-Ballie in 1994. With the Trust's intentions to protect and nurture "The Land....Its People....Its Wild....". Fleur has taken the bull by the horns and set herself up in The Kingdom of The Zulu to oversee the process of the Wildlife Sanctuary establishment.
The 6,200 Acre Khumbula Thina Mountain Sanctuary is situated near Bayala, a remote part of The Kingdom between Hluhluwe and Mkuze. An ex-beef cattle farm originally over-run with Triffid weed (Chromolaena odorata) and heavily encroached with Sickle Bush (Dichrostactiys cinerea) as a result of overgrazing and with many areas of erosion caused by cattle trampling, it was still selected by Fleur and purchased by the Trust in Y2000. Over the years, a determined Fleur, alongside a dedicated team of game guards and contracted local community members, have set about changing this ecological "desert" into a well-established and bountifully protected area for the flora and fauna of the region.
While the trust has funded numerous environmental and community upliftment projects in South Africa in the past, it was the personal invitations by both Presidents FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki respectively, for me to join South Africa in its post apartheid reconstruction that facilitated the Trust's idea to own its own piece of The Wild "for the purpose of maintaining it for the benefit of current and future generations," explains Fleur. "I was concerned that in the new government's drive to uplift the previously disadvantaged people through the building of houses, schools and the creation of work opportunities, it would mistakenly neglect its wildlife and protected areas. I wanted to make sure that this did not happen."
However, now that the Preserve is established, Fleur has turned her attention to the local community. Chief Tabethe of the Myeni Tribe, has become a friend. He and his community have close ties with Khumbula Thina Trust. Work opportunities on the Preserve are available for the people. Managers and field rangers are being trained as part of the upliftment and development of the community.
For the first time in the history of the area, the Trust has appointed a member from the Zulu Community as manager of the Refuge. As an Advisor to Chiefs Myeni and Tabethe, and his vast knowledge of the Environment, he is well equipped to carry out this very responsible task.
Khumbula Thina Trust donates funding to support HIV councilors. It envisions a school, a church, and a communal meeting hall in the community.
Although The Trust is under the advice of the Chief and his Council, Fleur also meets with the Amakozi, the Kings Council of Chiefs.
His response to the drought conditions that had the region in its firm grip recently, and that led to significantly reduced graze and browse material for the sanctuary's newly stocked game, vast amounts of Trust funds have been used to purchase feed to sustain the animals and pay the staff. This has led to a flourishing population of plants and animals, making the sanctuary the envy of the region.
Fleur does not allow any hunting or culling in the sanctuary, an unusual philosophy in an area that sustains itself through hunting packages offered to local and foreign tourists.
"Some people tend to shake their heads when I tell them this," says Fleur. However, in the long-term vision of the Sanctuary we want to have wildlife accustomed to the harmless presence of humans so that children and volunteers who visit or work in the Sanctuary respectively, can have a closer and more educational interaction with our wild inhabitants. It will be a rewarding experience for these visitors."
When the trust bought the property, Fleur set about immediately with the building of an infrastructure. This included the immediate priority of providing comfortable accommodation for her permanently employed game guards and maintenance staff. To do this, local builders from the previously disadvantaged communities near the sanctuary were employed on a temporary basis. With sustainable use of natural resources being a major aim of the Trust, where possible, some of the material used to build the accommodation was collected from the sanctuary.
'We have a river on the northern border of the sanctuary. The surface of its bed is normally dry. We source two types of sand for the building process from the riverbed, one for the cement, and the other for the plaster. We make sure that we do not damage the environment where we collect the sand," says Fleur.
Overgrown and eroded access roads in the sanctuary have also been upgraded. One of these measures is the utilization of the numerous small rocks and dead aloe stems that abound in the sanctuary area. Where erosion gullies have been found, rocks and aloe stems have been placed in the gullies. When rains have fallen, however little, the rocks and stems have impeded the water and soil runoff and, over time, the soils have filled the gullies up. Some of the previously heavily eroded areas are now covered with thriving grass cover and any moisture that falls is able to penetrate the soils instead of running off to waste.
"As the aloe stems decompose in the erosion gullies, they also provide valuable organic matter to the soil for the germination of the grass seeds," relates Fleur proudly.
Fleur inherited a complex system of concrete watering holes with the purchase of the old cattle farm. Some of these had to be found using old aerial charts of the region, so overgrown with weeds was the property. While these existing manmade waterholes are a boon for the game, they proved quite a management headache for Fleur and her staff until they came up with some ideas to reduce problems.
"While some game like to drink straight from these concrete watering points, we found that due to the approximately 50cm high walls of the points, small animals struggled to access the water. In addition, animals such as warthogs and bush pigs that enjoy a good wallow in the mud, could not do this at the concrete points," explains Fleur. "So we cut minute grooves out of the top of each point's wall where, by controlling water flow out of the ball valves in each point, small quantities of water flow out of the water point via the groove. This water flows into an artificially created wallow, and animals such as snakes, including pythons, birds, porcupines, duiker, the rabbit-sized suni antelope, among others, can have access to water at their own level and for their own purposes."
Another problem associated with the concrete watering points was the rapid accumulation of algae that made the water less palatable. To counter this, Fleur and her game guards caught seed populations of Mozambique tilapia from a central reservoir and placed them into these concrete points. The tilapia has set about feeding on the algae, resulting in a significant decrease in its spread and an increase in the clarity and freshness of drinking water for the game. The tilapia also acts as a source of food for birds like kingfishers, and insects such as water beetles and dragonfly larvae. Unless the watering points dry up, all the tilapia should not die out as they do have refuge from predators in the piles of rocks that have been placed in the watering points to allow any animals that fall in, to clamber out again.
"One of the developments on the property that I am most pleased with must be the Triffid weed eradication and Sickle bush thinning program," says Fleur. 'When the trust first bought the farm in Y2000, the exotic and mostly unpalatable Triffid weed covered approximately 50% of the property's grazing, especially in the valleys. I employed thirty local women on a contractual basis to chop the Triffid weed down. But it just kept growing back. I didn't want to use poisons to eradicate it, so the ladies and I spent 5 years pulling out every single Triffid weed plant by the roots. To date there has been no re-growth. Each year, however, after the summer rains, the seedlings must be dispatched effectively. The seeds blow in from neighboring farms where conservation is not carried out in as aggressive a manner as it is on the Preserve.
The Triffid weed plants were left to decompose on the soil surface, providing organic matter to the soil, while also providing ground cover for the re-establishment of grazing grassland, and promoting rainfall penetration into the soil. The indigenous Sickle bush, while providing browse material for many game animals, had also encroached heavily on the sanctuary's grazing areas as a result of the original cattle overgrazing the veld. Fleur and her team set about thinning the numbers of this thorny plant, not eradicating it, so that grazers could also access more grassland. The piles of thinned Sickle bush are not burnt, but also left to decompose. These piles are providing a habitat for birds, reptiles and rodents, thus increasing the biodiversity of the sanctuary. Of most importance, the Sickle bush has provided a haven for the grass seed to germinate, and thus cover areas left denuded after the removal of the bush.
Fleur does not receive any financial reward for her activities. She is only following a dream set by herself and her like-minded American peers. In South Africa, where jobs are scarce and wildlife is under threat from poaching, drought and urbanization, people like Fleur should be valued for their input, not despised. While lacking in formal conservation training, Fleur makes up for it with passion and a willingness to learn more about the nature and the people she loves. She only hopes that she, her Trust and its Wildlife Sanctuary can make a positive difference in her Community.
'We need to work together for the good of us all; people and nature,' she says.
Leaving South Africa to study aviation in the United States in 1970, Fleur received her Commercial, Instrument, Instructor, Dispatcher, Engineer, and Airline Transport Licenses. Flying many types of airplanes around the world, she also became the first woman in the world ever to qualify for a Pilot/Engineer Ticket in a Boeing 747.
In 1980, Fleur married famous heart surgeon, Dr John Gillespie, who pioneered and designed the first heart-valve and and heart defibrillator. Several years after the passing of Dr Gillespie Fleur married Hon. Richard K Cook.
The Hon. Mr. Cook is a former member of the Banking Committee in the US Senate; was an adviser to President Richard Nixon and Lobbyist to Congress: and, before his retirement was a Senior Vice-President for the Lockheed Corporation.
Fleur has accompanied her husband, Richard, on visits to the White House, the Pentagon, the US Senate, and numerous and varied functions which would normally surround the political climate of Washington. Richard continues to advize the US Administration in Office, whether it is Republican or Democrat.
During a celebration on the release of President Nelson Mandela from prison, held at the South African Embassy in Washington DC, Fleur and Richard had occasion to chat briefly with the then South African President, FW de Klerk. Fleur outlined the future plans for her Foundation in Southern Africa to President de Klerk, who then suggested that she return to South Africa to implement her conservation ideas in the country of her birth. In addition, when current South African President, Thabo Mbeki, was inaugurated in 1999, he called on all expatriates to return to South Africa to take part in its reconstruction. Fleur and Richard were also at the function where President Mbeki made this request, and so Fleur then decided to take up the invitation.