PLANET SAVERSPART ONE IN THE SERIESDr Ian Player and Ian McCallumKatherine Pretorius Edward Abbey, Henry Thoreau, Walden, and Dr. Ian Player are amoung the many heroes hailed as the pioneers of conservation and amoung the first ever eco-warriors. They were visionaries who saw the inevitable destruction of our world at the hands of its people and dedicated their lives to bring about the changes needed to save it.

In this series of articles, we take a closer look at these vanguards from past to present and how the idea of conservation has changed. We begin our journey with our very own Dr Ian Player and the the 2007 interview by poet, author and wilderness guide, Dr Ian McCallum.
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Game ranger, conservationist, author, founder of the Wilderness Leadership School and recipient of multiple international awards for his contribution to the promotion and protection of wild areas and the animals that depend on them. This is Ian Player, a man whose name is also synonymous with the protection of the endangered white rhino and the world-famous Dusi canoe marathon, which he pioneered and won on three occasions.

In January 2007, I visited Ian and his wife, Ann, at Phuzamoya (‘to drink the wind’ in the Zulu language), their sprawling farm in the Karkloof Valley in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. The walls of their rambling home are lined with bookcases filled with volumes on subjects as varied as biography, psychology, natural history, war, philosophy, and political history. We settled into snug armchairs where, over a glass or two of fine Scotch whisky, we began to chat… I have always admired your selection of books.
Where did your interest in reading come from?
This was a gift from my mother and for which I am most grateful. I grew up in Johannesburg just prior to and during the early years of World War 2, and my mother understood the value of literacy and education. My father, on the other hand, instilled in me a love of the bush. He took me fishing and introduced me to the world of rivers and birds.
Did you have any idea that you would become a ranger and then a conservationist?
As a young boy I was drawn to wild areas. My uncle had a farm that bordered South Africa’s Kruger National Park and through him I met the legendary James Stevenson Hamilton, who was the park warden at the time. I remember being very impressed with his politeness. I was certainly captivated by wilderness, but not to the degree that it would grip me in later years.
Did your pioneering of the Dusi River canoe marathon have an influence on your career?
Yes. Two things happened. Firstly, I remember being struck by the paucity of wild animals along the river. I believed there should have been more and wondered what had happened to them. The second was that the race cost me my job. I was working for an aluminium company at the time and the marathon lasted longer than I had expected. I arrived late for work and was promptly fired!
What did you do?
I took the advice of a friend and journalist, Ken Brokensha, who was covering the race for a local newspaper and was aware of my concern about the low numbers of wild animals. He recommended that I apply to what was then the Natal Parks Board (NPB) for a post. I was interviewed by Colonel Jack Vincent, the secretary of the NPB, and I was so intent on getting a job that I told him I was prepared to work for nothing. Luckily, he had read about me and my involvement with the Dusi canoe race and said, ‘I see you have been fired. This is cause for celebration!’ He appointed me as a relief ranger because it was the only job that nobody else wanted. I believe that you didn’t have a uniform when you started as a ranger. Not only that, but they also didn’t even give me a hat or a badge. All I had was a piece of paper authorising my position as a ranger. It was tough. Hunters were shooting reedbuck, and the poaching of oysters and crayfish was rampant. Nevertheless, I was determined to do something about it.
Without a uniform?
Yes. To add a bit of clout to my authority, I pinned my three service medals from the war on my shirt. They definitely helped. Eventually, because I began to curb the illegal activities, many of the local fishermen and hunters wanted me fired from my job.
How were they hoping to succeed?
You have to understand who many of the poachers were. Once, I remember hearing gunshots in the reserve and I knew by the thud of the impact that an animal had been hit. I crawled through the bushes and was surprised to come across a police vehicle. Apart from the sickening feeling of having to arrest someone, I knew I would have trouble getting a policeman convicted (the case was later withdrawn), let alone arresting one of the other culprits, who happened to be a magistrate, who got away. But they were not the norm. Many other, brave policemen supported my mission. In those days, conservation laws were hopelessly inadequate and so, through various political contacts, the hunting fraternity approached Colonel Vincent to get rid of me. He refused to comply and told me to carry on doing my job. It meant a great deal to know that I had this kind of support.
Colonel Vincent was an important person in your life?
I was hugely inspired by him. In spite of his size – he was just 1.67 metres tall – he had the unmistakeable stamp of a leader. There was an aura about him. You felt it in his handshake and in the way he spoke. Were there any other men who inspired you? What did they have in common? Yes, the writer and conservationist, T.C. Robertson was one and, even though I never knew him personally, the former Israeli prime minister Moshe Dayan was another.
Laurens van der Post also had that ‘something’. Then there is my brother Gary; my old friend and trail companion Magqubu Ntombela; Ken Tinley, who introduced me to birds; and Jim Feeley, who had a vast knowledge of American conservation literature. As for what they had in common, I think you can sum it up in the words ‘courage’, ‘discipline’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘commitment’.
Talking about commitment, is it true that you saved the white rhino from extinction in this country?
No. That’s an exaggeration and I am glad to be able to put the record straight. By 1895, because of continuous hunting, the white rhino was thought to be extinct until a hunter shot and killed two at the junction of the Black and White Imfolozi rivers. This caused an outcry and, in 1897, the then governor of Natal had the present Hluhluwe – Imfolozi and Greater St Lucia Wetland parks proclaimed as reserve areas.

At that time, there were only 50 white rhinos in these reserves, and the threat of poaching and hunting promised a grim future. However, there was no one to coordinate their protection until 1912, when Frederick Vaughan-Kirby was appointed as chief game conservator. He and his successor, Captain H.B. Potter, and their team of field guards were responsible for reversing the decline of the rhino population. Both rangers looked upon the white rhino as the symbol for the protection of the parks. By 1952, when I joined the NPB in Zululand, all the parks, with the exception of Hluhluwe, were threatened with de-proclamation because the government at the time saw far more value in farms than in game reserves.
My association with the white rhino began in 1953 when Vincent gave me the task of safeguarding the Imfolozi reserve, and it became a priority to establish the number of white rhinos. So, with the help of a pilot in his old crop sprayer and colleague Hendrik van Schoor, I conducted the first aerial count of the white rhinos in the area. The total was 437; the figure was burned into my brain. Meanwhile, the rhinos were still moving freely in and out of the parks and poaching for their meat and horns had become horrendous. My next priority and, ultimately, my battle, was to tighten the boundaries of the park and to relocate some of the growing population into other game parks in the country and to sanctuaries and zoos internationally.

In 1958 I was appointed senior ranger and, through the media, was able to bring the plight of the white rhino to the attention of the public. In 1960 I led the team that began the capture and relocation of these great animals. Many of my colleagues regarded my plan as logistically ‘explosive’ because it had never been tried before and darting techniques were rather primitive compared with those of today. I visited Uganda to study the game-capture techniques used there and returned to implement our own darting and relocating programme. I managed to raise media attention by selling groups of white rhinos to open zoos and safari parks, and then travelled to the Philippines, the US and almost everywhere else on the globe to raise awareness of the plight of rhinos.
The Wilderness Leadership School (WLS) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. How did the school come about?
In 1957, while I was stationed at St Lucia, a group of boys from my former school, St John’s College in Johannesburg, arrived. ‘We’ve heard about you, and we want to experience a bit of wilderness,’ one of them said. So, I took them out on the lake and made them walk along a stretch of the coast. They were captivated by the spirit of the place, and some began to show potential for future leadership. I realised that somebody had to explore and promote wilderness as a potentially life-changing experience as well as a catalyst for leadership. And that someone was me! So, with Jim Feely and Magqubu Ntombela and, again, in the face of resistance from a number of senior colleagues, we led the first walking trails in the Imfolozi and Lake St Lucia regions. It took another 20 years for the Kruger National Park to offer similar walking trails.
I understand that your friendship with Magqubu had a deep impact on your life.
When I met Magqubu in 1952, he was in his late 40s and had been working with the parks authorities since 1914. Together, we walked the length and breadth of the Imfolozi. Magqubu played a vital role in the capture and relocation of the white rhino. Above all, he was a teacher or, better still, a mentor. He was a gracious man and his respect for wilderness was profound. I miss him.
What would you regard as the essence of the WLS trails?
There are at least three important ingredients that I believe contribute to the spiritual impact of wilderness. These are the silent walks, the night watch – when you are alone beside the fire as you keep a lookout for nocturnal animals – and exploring the wilderness on foot rather than in a safari vehicle. You become aware that you walk among all other life forms as equals. To me, there is something sacred about wilderness and, as my close friend Laurens van der Post put it, the trail itself is always, at the same time, an inner and an outer journey.
Looking back, are there any regrets, any lessons you would like to share?
No, there have been no regrets. I was offered many jobs by businessmen, and I knew I could earn a lot more money than I did as a conservationist. But I refused them. I knew that, in spite of the difficulties in conservation, I could make a difference. And I would like to think that I did. For example, when a foreign mining company made a bid to mine titanium in the dunes at St Lucia, I, in conjunction with a group of courageous people, succeeded in establishing the St Lucia wetlands as a World Heritage Site. Some of the lessons have been tough. I learned that it is easy to make enemies. In order to get things done, you need to know your politics and your politicians. You must have the right people on your side, even if it means looking abroad for help. Sometimes, I felt like I was fighting a war. The strategies and tactics were the same. I was even accused of being in this work for the glory, but I learned to ignore that and, 55 years later, I’m still active in the field of conservation. Interestingly, many of the people who helped me have been on a wilderness trail. That says more about the power of the wilderness than it does about me.
What would you regard as the essence of the WLS trails?
There are at least three important ingredients that I believe contribute to the spiritual impact of wilderness. These are the silent walks, the night watch – when you are alone beside the fire as you keep a lookout for nocturnal animals – and exploring the wilderness on foot rather than in a safari vehicle. You become aware that you walk among all other life forms as equals. To me, there is something sacred about wilderness and, as my close friend Laurens van der Post put it, the trail itself is always, at the same time, an inner and an outer journey.
Would you do it all over again?
I think so. I feel I have done a good job. However, it would not have been possible without the help of many men and women, some of whom I have mentioned. There have been others in the political field, such as Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose support for our wilderness areas has been immense, as well as people such as the late Douglas Mitchell, who loved the parks; Vance Martin, president of the WILD Foundation and coordinator of the four-yearly World Wilderness Congress; Andrew Muir, current director of the Wilderness Foundation; and Alistair Rankin, the manager of the Wilderness Leadership School. Others I would like to thank include Abednigo Nzuza and Gladman Buthelezi, and the numerous colleagues and trackers who, in the early days, were in the thick of it’. Nick Steele, Jan Oelofse, Gordon Bailey and John Forrest shared with me a passion for conservation. However, above all, none of what I have enjoyed, strived for or achieved over the years would have been possible without the love and support of my wife, Ann. She is a remarkably strong woman. I thank her for that.
Finally, the future… I do have concerns. I am obviously worried about any kind of betrayal of the conservation ethic in our country – about the loss of tracking and other field skills as well as the intuitive understanding of animal behaviour. I worry about the growing human population and its potential negative impact on the wild areas of the world.I know that humans have a right to exist, but so do other species. I also know that nature will re-establish its balance and, if we won’t work with her, she will do the job on her own. Nature is not in a hurry and, as we know, she can be ruthless.“We believe that interest in nature leads to knowledge, which is followed by understanding and later, appreciation. Once respect is gained, it is a short step to responsibility and ultimately action to preserve the earth.” – Ian Player
Times may have changed but the message still rings true.