Death of a Conservationist

Contributed by Mike Bruton

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One of the world’s greatest conservationists, Dr. Ian Player, died on 30th November 2014. Ian, brother of golfer Gary Player, is widely credited with saving the white rhino from extinction when their numbers were perilously low 50 years ago. Rhinos, which are still under severe threat from poachers today, faced a crisis in the 1960s when Player led an operation to build up their populations in several different game reserves, including the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

South Africa’s rhino population responded to these measures and has expanded to about 20,000 animals, or 80% of Africa’s rhinos. However, poachers have killed over 1,000 rhinos in South Africa this year as demand for their horn rises in parts of Asia. The horn is made of keratin, the same substance found in human fingernails, yet some people covet it as a status symbol, aphrodisiac or medicine despite all the evidence to the contrary.

hornless-rhinoIan Player started his career as a game ranger with Natal Parks Board in 1952 and later, while Warden of Umfolozi Game Reserve, spearheaded ‘Operation Rhino’ to save the few remaining representatives of the southern race of the white rhino. He also led the initiative to establish the first wilderness areas in Africa around Umfolozi and St Lucia Game Reserves in Zululand. He also established the Wilderness Leadership School and the International Wilderness Leadership Foundation, which lead to the World Wilderness Congresses that have been held regularly since 1977. His book, ‘Men, Rivers and Canoes’ (1964) initiated the famous Dusi Canoe marathon. Ian and his faithful companion, Magquba Ntombela, were very inspirational men who spawned a generation of thoughtful and committed conservationists.

I met him on several occasions. Once, while doing research on a remote lake in Northern Zululand, he visited me with the American astronaut, Walter Schirra, one of the spacemen on Project Mercury. The previous day they had taken part in a rhino catch in Umfolozi Game Reserve which Schirra described as “one of the best days of my life”. I took them on a trip across Lake Sibaya but a storm blew up and we had a choppy voyage back home and a tricky landing at the research station’s jetty. As he disembarked Schirra patted me on the back and complimented me on my ‘soft landing’ – quite a compliment from the Gemini pilot who achieved the first space rendezvous!

While I was Head of Education at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town we arranged a debate on conservation ethics with a prestigious bunch of conservationists, including Ian Player and the palaeo-anthropologist Richard Leakey from Kenya. In Player’s opinion wilderness is not so much a place as a state of mind, a sense of freedom that every human has the right to have. Consequently he invited ordinary people as well as top decision makers, politicians, sportspeople and astronauts on his wilderness trails as he was convinced that an experience of the wilderness would change their attitude towards wildlife conservation, and he was right.

Ian has left us now but fortunately his books ‘The White Rhino Saga’ and ‘Zulu Wilderness. Shadow and Soul’ will continue to inspire generations of conservationists.

Professor Mike Bruton
MTE Studios Director,
Bahrain Science Centre.