Obituary: Ian Player, conservationist

Ian Player, conservtionist. Picture: Contributed
Ian Player, conservtionist. Picture: Contributed
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IAN PLAYER, who has died at the age of 87, was arguably the world’s greatest modern conservationist, who became as big a legend as Scotland’s own John Muir.

Ian Player, conservationist.

Born: 15 March, 1927, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Died: 30 November, 2014, Karkloof, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, aged 87.

It was my own privilege to walk with Player in the South African wilderness among lion, rhino and hyena and talk with him for hours and hours in the tree-enveloped Zululand farmhouse where he spent his final years.

Ian leaves a great raft of extraordinary achievements to his name, but he will be memorialised above all for his derring-do endeavours in saving the white rhinoceros, whose numbers were once down to fewer than 50, from extinction.

Today, thanks to Player, there are more than 20,000 white rhinos in the wild throughout central and southern Africa – so many that they are now being poached in South Africa alone at a rate of more than one thousand animals a year, their horns being smuggled out by ruthless mafia-style gangs through foreign embassies to feed the modern craze for powdered horn in China and Vietnam.

Paying tribute to his older brother, the Grand Slam champion golfer Gary Player said: “Ian truly made a difference in this world with his heroic efforts for which he was bestowed countless awards and accolades, all of which he richly deserved.

“The world has lost a great South African, a dedicated conservationist, a gentleman, a scholar and, to me, a loving brother. I will take a walk in nature today remembering that one man can make a huge impact. His presence will always be felt for me in the wild and beautiful places of this world because that was where he was happiest.”

Ian Player’s epic life began modestly seven miles outside Johannesburg in a working-class home in an area covered in bush, streams and lakes but which today is covered in concrete and highways.

He left school at the age of 15, “virtually uneducated” and, on his 17th birthday, joined the 6th Armoured Brigade to fight in North Africa and Italy, where he sustained a smashed knee that caused him pain for the rest of his life.

“I was a completely lost soul when I came out of the army at the age of 19,” said Player. “I eventually had to work on the gold mines, 6,000 feet below.”

His break came in 1952 when he was appointed a game ranger in the Umfolozi Game Reserve, in northern Zululand. He was the only ranger there, together with two other rangers in nearby reserves, when the general population was not sympathetic to conservation. “We were at the bottom end of the social scale,” he recalled. “We got hostile receptions in pubs.”

But he had landed in a remarkable place. It was there, where the fig and mahogany tree-lined Black Umfolozi and White Umfolozi Rivers converge, in the former royal hunting grounds of the deposed Zulu monarchy, that British colonial authorities discovered in 1894 a residual population of fewer than 50 white rhino. Until then it was thought that the animal, the world’s second largest land mammal after the elephant, had been hunted to extinction.

South Africa’s first game reserve was immediately proclaimed at Umfolozi and neighbouring Hluhluwe – the two connected by a narrow corridor – to protect the animal. “Otherwise its extinction was certain,” said Player.

Player conducted an aerial survey in 1953 of Umfolozi-Hluhluwe and found that the white rhino population had grown to 437 as a result of careful protection. But the Umfolozi-Hluhluwe reserve had reached the limit of its capacity and Player feared that this single breeding population might be wiped out by anthrax or other infections from surrounding Zulu cattle herds.

Player persuaded officials that rhinos needed to be moved out of Umfolozi-Hluhluwe to the giant Kruger Park and other reserves around South Africa if the white rhino was to be saved. It was a game transfer task of immense magnitude. Horses, used to track darted rhino, were gored and men and equipment damaged. Player himself lost the sight of an eye when the morphine-based drug M99 used to immobilise the animals was squirted in his face.

The rhino transfer strategy was so successful that it was expanded to countries throughout central and southern Africa – Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, Mozambique and Swaziland. Player began exporting white rhinos 20 at a time to the United States (San Diego Safari Park, to begin with) and the United Kingdom, beginning with Whipsnade Zoo.

In these endeavours Player was soon supported by a Zulu ranger, Magqubu Ntombela, who became his dearest friend and comrade at a time when apartheid policies supposedly made such relationships near-impossible.

The pair risked their lives together and for each other. “Magqubu was my beloved friend, mentor and wilderness guide – he was unique.

“He taught me the real meaning of hlonipha (respect and ubuntu (compassion). Through the most patient instruction he introduced me to a new cosmology. It was a very profound relationship.”

I loved listening to Player’s innumerable wonderful stories about Magqubu and the spiritual strength Ian drew from his friend, despite their entirely different cultures.

But the one I enjoyed most concerned the visit Ian and Magqubu made to the Brecon Cathedral headquarters of the South Wales Borderers, who together with other regiments lost more than 1,000 men in the 1879 Battle of Isandlwana against a 20,000-strong army of Zulu warriors loyal to King Cetshwayo kaMpande.

Magqubu’s grandfather had fought at Isandlwana, while Ian’s grandfather had fought in a nearby battle on the same day with the Natal Hussars against another Zulu force.

At Brecon, where the tattered banners of the British forces who fought at Isandlwana are draped from the Cathedral walls and ceiling, Magqubu performed a very traditional ceremony in Zulu to appease the souls of the Welsh soldiers who fell in the famous battle, which the British lost.

The colonel of the Royal Regiment, his officers and Ian Player were in tears and for days Magqubu was big news in the British press.

Beforehand, Player had had a big row with Magqubu, who insisted on travelling with his iron cooking pot. How, he told Player, could he ensure that his enemies would not poison him if he could not cook his maize meal porridge in his own pot? Magqubu won the argument: the pot travelled with him.

Player and Magqubu, who died when approaching the age of 100, set up the Wilderness School which has taken tens of thousands of youngsters into the deepest bush to sleep on the red African earth under the stars to the sound of the rasping call of leopards, the howls of hyenas and the moans of lions.

Player and Magqubu also established in 1974 the four-yearly World Wilderness Congress, now the world’s longest-running public conservation project and environmental forum. The first Congress was held in the Umfolozi.

The third was hosted in the Scottish Highlands by Player’s close friend Finlay MacRae, the legendary piper and forester who restored the traditional Caledonian Forest in Glen Affric as a national nature reserve.

Among Ian Player’s last wishes as he lay dying from a stroke which followed extended heart trouble was a wish that the young generation would continue the work that he and Magqubu Ntombela had pioneered.

“These wilderness areas are of great spiritual value to every single one of us,” was one of Player’s last messages to the youth of today. “Go well and continue the struggle.”

Ian Player is survived by his wife, Ann, his children Kenneth, Jessica and Amyas, his brother Gary and sister Wilma.