River of Life: Ian Player, saviour of the white rhino

| 5th December 2014
Ian and Magqubu minding the nightly fire to protect against predators. Photo: www.trevorbarrettphoto.co.uk/ .
Ian and Magqubu minding the nightly fire to protect against predators. Photo: www.trevorbarrettphoto.co.uk/ .
The white rhino is in deep trouble after a new surge of poaching. But the fact that it's there at all is largely thanks to one man: Ian Player, who saved the white rhino from near-certain extinction in the 1960's. Earlier this year Nicola Graydon met Dr Player at his home in South Africa, to record his last major interview.
Like the Zulu warriors who cleanse themselves of the killing they had to perform in battle, I found my healing there in wild nature. Africa had awakened in my soul and set me on a new path.

When last I saw Ian Player speaking in London he brought us all to rapt attention by perfectly imitating the shrill call of the fish eagle.

Soon after that I went to interview him at his home on the outskirts of Durban in South Africa, to find two zebra standing between me and his front door - a fitting obstacle for a man who has done so much for wild nature. It was 2006 and his legacy seemed assured.

While Ian Player has achieved many victories for the environment - among them rescuing the spectacular St Lucia wetlands from a mining consortium - his name will always be synonymous for saving the critically endangered white rhino from extinction in the 1960's.

'Operation Rhino' was one of the most successful conservation operations in history: the ground-breaking capture and translocation program took a tiny and critically endangered population of just 600 white rhino from a game reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal and expanded it throughout Africa and the rest of the world.

By the time I met him, there were over 17,000 white rhino in nine African countries and nearly 800 in zoos and safari parks around the world. "We can honestly say that as far as the Southern White Rhino is concerned it is as safe a species as it is possible to be", he told me at the time.

Then, in 2008, a new slaughter began

After a decade of quiet - with just a dozen or so rhino being taken a year - poaching suddenly started rising again. In 2008, numbers killed leapt to 83; then to 122 in 2009, finally soaring to 1,000 last year. Already this year, some 500 have been lost. And dozens of game rangers have been shot trying to protect them.

For Ian Player it's a recurring nightmare. A life's work saving a species and, just at the moment when you think you can put your feet up and die happy, the slaughter starts to happen all over again. Only this time it's happening with helicopters, sophisticated tracking devises and semi-automatic weapons.

His distress at this drastic turn of events is palpable. "The white rhino is a really decent wild animal that has suffered greatly at the hands of man", he says on the phone from South Africa. "It is such a docile, innocent creature that even in death has been instrumental in securing wild land. We have to stop the killing."

"As human beings we have a duty to protect the natural world and the white rhino is an iconic symbol. It's one of the oldest species on our earth. The world has to wake up. We're losing our heritage."

At 87, Ian Player's mind is sharp as a tack but his body is broken from his days of rhino capture. Darting them with anaesthetic was one thing. It was administering the antidote that was the dangerous part.

"You had to climb onto their head in order to grab an ear to raise a vein and get the needle in. Because it had such a rapid effect one couldn't get off in time so one was flicked off like a fly", he chuckles. "I can hardly walk now but it was an honour to have been able to serve the rhino."

Like the Zulu warriors who cleanse themselves of the killing they had to perform in battle, I found my healing there in wild nature. Africa had awakened in my soul and set me on a new path.

Call of destiny

Back in 2008 when the poaching began again, Player was tempted to leave his crusade to younger men but one night he had a dream that a baby rhino came into his room, climbed up onto his bed and laid its head on his shoulder. "So there it was. The rhino had come to ask for my help so I am quite literally involved up to my neck."

While Player's name will always be synonymous with this one species, his mission is far broader. He is passionate about the very existence of wilderness. His concern is that once we lose the iconic creatures of the wild - the elephant, the rhino, the lion, the tiger - we will lose the wild itself.

He has lived much of his life in wild places and can perfectly imitate dozens of birdcalls and other animal sounds. The wild lives in his blood and he believes that it can be our salvation as a species; that our lives quite literally depend on it.

His relationship with the wild began when he fulfilled a promise he had made to himself as a young soldier on the eve of the final push into the Po Valley in Italy in 1944: if he survived he would canoe from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

When he came back broken by war and without prospects, he endured the mines and other odd jobs until he remembered his pledge. And, in 1950, he embarked on this challenging 120-kilometre journey along the Msundusi and Umgeni Rivers, travelling alone, sleeping on the ground at night and experiencing nature in its most primal form. It would change his life.

"The land of the thousand hills was sparsely populated then so day after day I paddled alone in those deep gorges, sometimes caught in thunder and lightening storms that swept the rivers. I had entered a new world. Like the Zulu warriors who cleanse themselves of the killing they had to perform in battle, I found my healing there in wild nature. Africa had awakened in my soul and set me on a new path."

And so he became a game ranger for the Natal Parks Board and thereafter devoted his life to wilderness.

A spirit on the wind ...

A couple of years later, in the dark heart of an apartheid South Africa, he found his mentor, Magquebu Ntombela, a black elder ranger who captured his young mind and led him into a profound - and deeply African - relationship with the environment that also came to include an understanding of its role in the psyche of humanity.

Ntombela was his "midwife", Player is fond of saying, who birthed him into Africa after six generations of ancestral presence on the continent.

Ntombela, a descendent of the great Zulu chiefs, Shaka and Dingaan, was illiterate but understood nature in a way that it is difficult for a compartmentalized Western mind to grasp. He read nature like we read books.

He sensed the presence of animals and birds in the bush; sniffed the change of weather on the wind. Animals were his "brothers" and "sisters" and the natural world was a sacred being that demanded respect and reverence. He died in 1993 but Ian Player never fails to greet the bronze bust of his friend that sits in his hall.

Together they set up wilderness trails around South Africa taking anyone from CEO's to township kids into the veldt. And it was on Ntombela's suggestion that Player set up the first Wilderness Congress sparking a global wilderness consciousness movement.

"Everyone who comes to the wilderness is changed by it", says Player. "No one who sleeps on the ground underneath the blaze of southern stars and hears the roar of the lion, the coughing of the leopard, the howl of the hyena, the scream of the elephant and smells the smoke of wild wood burning is ever the same again."

The transformational power of nature

In some ways, Ian Player is classic 'old school' white African - all discipline and starched khaki trousers - but he also walks to a different drum. He's a longtime Jungian and listens to the messages he receives in his dreams.

And, amidst scientists and politicians, hard-bitten activists and safari elites, he's unafraid to talk about the "spirituality" inherent in the natural world; of how the human "soul" can be restored by the experience of wilderness and why Africa itself has a unique ability to heal the ills of modern humanity. He has seen too many people transformed on his wilderness trails.

"We don't do anything; the landscape does it for us. We are walking in an ancient landscape where early man walked so it is deeply imprinted on our soul. We evolved here alongside the megafauna. This is a connection with a very, very ancient, primeval part of ourselves: the interior landscape meets the exterior" - he claps his hands - " and the two click. I've watched it happen and it is a transformational experience - and a uniquely African one."

"I've had spiritual experiences in the Sierras in America or the Cairngorms or the Algonquians and the Himalaya but this is a different story. This is why people come to Africa."

Player does not mean a safari experience with fancy cutlery, although he thinks this is a good entry point. He means the wild wild where you walk, use canoes and animal transport; where you camp around fires and listen to the stories of local people and the sounds of the night:

"Just five days will take you back 50,000 years, and in those few days you can grasp the primary tenant of ecology - that everything is connected to everything else."

Sell the horn stocks to reduce the pressure and finance conservation!

The surge in poaching coincided with a crushing global recession, a rising demand for rhino horn from a burgeoning middle class in the Far East and a proliferation of splinter terror groups in Africa raising funds through the black market trade in ivory and rhino horn.

At this rate, the southern white rhino could be extinct by 2022. Its cousins, the northern white and western Black Rhino have both been declared extinct in the last decade.

Ian Player is working on various fronts to ensure their survival: he is involved in plans to establish a population in Australia which has ideal conditions for rhino and he is lobbying various groups to encourage the trade in legal rhino horn.

"We are sitting on tons of rhino horn that have been accumulated through natural mortality which could be sold in a regulated and careful way. Why would one kill or risk being killed if one could buy it quite easily?" And, he argues, the funds raised could go into much need conservation in game reserves around the country.

Scientists have also advocated farming rhino to harvest their horns - which grow about two pounds bigger per year - at minimal risk to the animals itself. But experts at WWF and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) believe that legalizing trade will result in more killing not less.

Meanwhile, as the arguments go back and forth, the slaughter continues with two or three rhino killed every single day.

Protect the rhino, protect the wilderness

The rhino has always been an iconic animal. At the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, a golden rhino was found buried in an 11th century tomb thought to belong to the king of an early Khoi San civilization known as Mapungubwe.

It's a poignant symbol of reverence when the survival of the species is threatened by the fact that its horn is now more expensive than gold.

However, the white rhino has shown enormous resilience and fortitude. It was thought to be extinct as early as 1895 when a hunter accidentally shot two white rhino. The furore of excitement led to the creation of the Umfolozi Game Reserve - the first of its kind in world - to provide sanctuary where the fate would bring Ian Player to bring about their resurgence in the 1960s.

"In protecting the rhino, we will be protecting their habitat", Player reiterates, "and in protecting their habitat we preserve the wild nature on which our humanity depends."

Rhinoceros is derived from the Greek meaning "nose of horn" and it has always been perceived as a thing of great value. In Europe rhino horn was once sold as unicorn horn and soon, if we are not vigilant and proactive, these gentle horned giants will enter our own mythology along with the wide-open savannahs in which they roamed.



This interview is published in memory of Dr Ian Player, nature conservation pioneer and legend. He passed away peacefully at midday on 30 November 2014, after a short illness, at the age of 87. He was at home surrounded by his family.

Nicola Graydon has written for The Sunday Times Magazine, The Telegraph Magazine, the Guardian, The Independent, The Mail on Sunday, Evening Standard, Marie Claire, Harpers Bazaar and The Ecologist. Her recent book The Ancestral Continuum (with co-author Natalia O'Sullivan) came out in 2013.

This interview was originally published in Ecolibrium Now, a compilation of essays by writers, poets and artists, economists, politicians, philosophers, who wish to show how the arts can be central to environment, ecology social change, inspired by the work of Polly Higgins on Ecocide and launched at Hawkwood College, Stroud.

Ian Player - biographical note

A globally recognised conservation legend, Dr Ian Player was a pioneer, a visionary and an activist who has profoundly influenced conservation and changed the lives of countless people. He grew up in the pioneering days of nature conservation in Africa, working for months on end in the wilderness.

His sporting passion was canoeing. After initiating the Pietermaritzburg to Durban Canoe Marathon (Dusi), he went on to win the race three times. His exploits are well documented in his book Men, Rivers and Canoes.

On his return from WWII he worked underground in the gold mines before taking a position in the (then) Natal Parks Board. He rose to the rank of Chief Conservator of Zululand by the time he took early retirement, in 1974. He was made a member of the Board on three occasions, the only Parks Board staff member to do so. Later in life he also served on the Board of SanParks (SA National Parks Board).

His list of awards is extensive, ranging from Knight in the Order of the Golden Ark (Holland), a decoration for Meritorious Service (Republic of South Africa civilian award) through to Doctor of Philosophy, Honoris causa - Natal University, South Africa, 1984 and Doctor of Laws (LLD) Honoris causa - Rhodes University, South Africa, 2003.

From 1952, as Warden of the iMfolozi Game Reserve, Dr Player spearheaded two important and far-reaching initiatives. The first was Operation Rhino, in which he led the team that pioneered the methods and drugs to immobilize and translocate large mammals.

The team captured and moved many of the remaining population of southern white rhino to save them from the brink of extinction. As a direct result, white rhinos now inhabit their former distribution range within many national parks and game reserves, private game farms, zoos and parks around the world.

The second initiative was Dr Player's recognition of the value of wilderness for the human spirit and for biodiversity conservation. Professionally, this led to the designation of the iMfolozi and St. Lucia Wilderness Areas in the late 1950s - the first wilderness areas to be zoned in South Africa and on the African continent.

It also fired his personal quest to understand the human psyche through dreams and drawing on the work of Swiss analyst Carl Jung, which he explored assiduously for decades with the late Sir Laurens van der Post. Dr Player was one of the founding forces for the Cape Town Centre for Applied Jungian Studies, the first such centre in Africa.

Dr Player resigned from the Natal Parks Board (NPB) to focus his energies on the wilderness movement. He continued conservation work within the NGO sector, leading to one of his most notable achievements - the founding of the globally recognised Wilderness Leadership School (WLS).

The WLS was the nucleus from which many other collaborative organisations have emerged, including the World Wilderness Congress (WWC) -- implemented by Vance Martin and the WILD Foundation on behalf of the Wilderness Network -- held every four years in various countries throughout the world.

Ian Player was also the founding force of the Wilderness Foundation (Africa) Wilderness Foundation (UK), The WILD Foundation (based in the USA and working globally), and the Magqubu Ntombela Memorial Foundation (in honour of his friend, colleague, and mentor).

Until very recently, Ian Player continued to serve on the Boards of these organisations that today play a significant role in conservation in Africa and globally. Despite life-long physical challenges that steadily increased with age, he nonetheless worked tirelessly on his life's work for wild nature.

Ian Player has written many books of which White Rhino Saga and Zululand Wilderness: Shadow and Soul are probably best known. His biography Into the River of Life was published towards the end of 2013.

Ian Player committed his life to conservation and, in particular, to the preservation of the rhino through his services as a consultant to many organisations sharing this common interest.

He is survived by Ann Player, his life-long wife, sons Kenneth and Amyas, daughter Jessica, and their families. His younger brother is the famous golfer, Gary Player.


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