Ian Player died in November 2014, aged 87. The older brother of professional golfer Gary Player became involved in conservation in the 1950s as a game ranger on the Hluhluwe uMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, Africa’s oldest official nature reserve. When it was established in 1897, there were only about 50 southern white rhinos left in the world, all of them on this reserve. By the time Player began working there in 1952, the population had recovered somewhat to under 500; by 1960 Umfolozi’s population of white rhinos had grown to 600. Player realized that it was dangerous to keep them restricted to one small park, so he convinced his reluctant superiors into allowing to move some of the animals to other protected parts of their former habitat. The resulting Operation Rhino became one of the most successful wildlife translocation programs ever. The southern white rhino became the first animal to be removed from the IUCN endangered species list and has been reestablished from Zululand over much of its former range in South Africa with a population estimated at over 20,000 today. Player eventually retired from the Natal Parks Board in 1974 as chief conservator in Zululand to devote more time to the wilderness movement.
Ian Player learned his belief in the spiritual value of wild places and the principles of inhlonipho (respect) and ubuntu (compassion) from his fellow ranger Magqubu Ntombela, a charismatic Zulu of royal blood with whom he started working in 1958. “I was steeped in the racial prejudice of my country and Magqubu transformed me,” Player recalled. In 1963 Player and Ntombela founded a Wilderness Leadership School with the aim of taking young people with leadership potential into the wilderness to encourage them to “question their place in the great scheme of things”. The success of the project eventually led Player to establish an International Wilderness Leadership Foundation in 1974, followed three years later by the World Wilderness Congress, the world’s longest-running public environmental forum.
With his practical approach to conservation, Player influenced numerous crucial developments in the conservation field and was honored with honorary doctorates and awards from around the world. More recently, he came out of retirement to campaign for a relaxation of the ban on the trade in rhino horn following the present surge in rhino poaching. Player believed that government-controlled trading in horns from animals that died naturally could force prices down, undermine the illegal trade and provide a source of revenue for conservation. South Africa’s natural heritage is richer for his contribution and we thank his family for sharing him with us.
Author: Gerhard R Damm