Dr. Ian Player, pioneering conservationist and international environmental activist, passed away nearly three years ago on November 30, 2014; however, his legacy remains through the ongoing fight to protect our planet. Ian Player was as accomplished a conservationist as Gary Player, his brother, is a professional golfer. Both brothers pursued their goals with determination and great success. Using the Shakespearean allusion, he often said “I was born on the Ides of March.”
Dr. Player’s work in environmental education, conservation, and activism contributed greatly to today’s wildlife conservation in Southern Africa. He served on the Natal Parks Board beginning in 1952 and went on to become the Chief Game Conservator. Operation Rhino, spearheaded by Dr. Player in the 1960s, saved the threatened White Rhino from extinction. Dr. Player not only successfully relocated the few remaining White Rhinos to safer and larger habitats, but he also facilitated the move of many White Rhinos to zoological gardens and safari parks around the world to ensure the breed’s survival. His efforts in conservation also led to the establishment of an anti-poaching network in South African game reserves. Ian’s work resulted in bodies of research, documentary and popular films, many books, and other efforts in awareness for the cause of saving the rhino and utilizing his methods for several other endangered species.
In addition to leading the team that saved the White Rhino from extinction, he worked on many other wildlife conservation projects. He led the efforts to create the first two wilderness areas to be declared in South Africa and the African continent, the wilderness areas in iMfolozi and St. Lucia. Furthermore, he conceived and conducted Operation Crocodile in which crocodiles were airlifted (for the first time) from the high salinity water of Mkuze River to the safety of fresh water in other parts of Lake St. Lucia.
Dr. Player’s work was global. As a world-renowned conservationist, he was often asked to lead conservation projects in other nations. He traveled and worked extensively to save many of the world’s threatened species of wildlife. He also successfully initiated the World Wilderness Congress in 1977, bringing conservationists from all over the globe together to debate and act on the environmental concerns of the day. The Congress continues today under the auspices of Wilderness Foundation Global and the WILD Foundation, and is the world’s longest-running, public, international conservation project with a significant history of practical and inspiring accomplishments.
In addition to leading conservation projects, Dr. Player supported environmental education, promoted awareness of conservation needs, and helped to found many wildlife conservation and education organizations, including the Wilderness Leadership School, World Wilderness Congress, the WILD Foundation, and Wilderness Foundation, S.A. and U.K. Much of his early work was done during the apartheid years in South Africa, when he worked side by side with his Zulu mentor and brother, Magqubu Ntombela, defying these racially unjust laws to create a new environmental ethic in South Africa. He also established the Duzi Canoe Marathon, one of the world’s most famous canoe races, and the Natal Canoe Club. The Duzi Canoe Marathon continues to raise awareness for environmental and conservation causes. These efforts all reflected his remarkable determination and his devotion to conserving the natural world, developing humanity’s relationship with and respect for the wilderness, and sharing the importance of nature and wildlife.
Gary Player remembers his brother as “a great South African, a dedicated global conservationist, a true renaissance man, a scholar, and to me, a loving brother.” Player felt that “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.”
Dr. Player’s colleagues and successors including his nephew Marc Player, continue to build on his work and to carry out his vision around the world. His legacy inspires those who strive to save the natural world for all of us. Said Marc, “We have several exciting initiatives planned including a feature film on Ian’s life, a documentary series aptly named Operation Wildlife as well as books and other ideas to continue building on his legacy”.
On World Rhino Day, it is important to remember the man, Dr. Ian Player, who dedicated his life to preserving the creatures of the earth – especially the Rhino.