JOHANNESBURG, South Africa––“We were deeply saddened to learn that Dr. Ian Player passed away this morning after suffering a stroke last week,” Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force chair Johnny Rodrigues e-mailed to ANIMALS 24-7 early on November 30, 2014, seven hours before confirmation came from major news media.
“Player was a true gentleman and one of the best conservationists in Africa,” Rodrigues continued. “He was responsible for introducing the white rhino into Hwange National Park [in Zimbabwe], amongst many other things.This is a great loss for African wildlife and we will try to keep his legacy alive. Our sincere condolences for his family.”
Player, 87, died at his home in the Karkloof Valley in KwaZulu-Natal, said the Wilderness Foundation, which he had cofounded in 1974.
Brother of golfer Gary Player
Rumors of Ian Player’s death circulated two days earlier, after his younger brother, the golfing legend Gary Player, tweeted, “My beloved brother Ian has cast his canoe onto the river of life that will shortly take him across to the other side. I will miss you. Love.”
Ian Player’s first of many books was Men, Rivers and Canoes (1965). He was also subject of a 2013 biography by Graham Linscott entitled Into the River of Life.
“Subsequently Project Rhino KZN spokesperson Sheelagh Antrobus said the tweet was misinterpreted,” reported the South African Press Association. “However, by then the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa had already issued a statement paying posthumous tribute to Player,” in which PHASA president Adri Kitshoff called him “Without a doubt the grandfather of conservation in South Africa.”
World War II veteran
Born in Johannesburg, the eldest of three children of miner Harry Player, Player served from 1944 through 1946 in the 6th South African Armoured Division, fighting with the American 5th Army in Italy.
Recalled General Mark Clark of the 6th South African Armoured Division, in his 1951 memoir Calculated Risk, “It was a battle-wise outfit, bold and aggressive against the enemy, and willing to do whatever job was necessary. In fact, after a period of severe day and night fighting, the 6th had in an emergency gone into the line as infantrymen. When the snow stalled their armour they dug in their tanks and used them as artillery to make up for our shortage in heavy guns. Their attacks against strongly organized German positions were made with great élan and without regard for casualties. Despite their comparatively small numbers, they never complained about losses.”
After World War II, Player obtained his education at St. John’s College, Joahnnesburg. He joined the Natal Parks Board as a ranger in 1952. The South African government was at the time trying to purge all large wildlife and predators to protect livestock, reducing the white rhino population to just 300 individuals. Becoming chief warden of the Umfolozi and St. Lucia Game Reserves, Player secured protection for both as wilderness, and founded Operation Rhino to preserve the white rhino species.
Recalled the Wild Foundation web site, “He then left government wildlife service to found the Wilderness Leadership School, the first organization in Africa dedicated to providing a pure wilderness experience for people of all backgrounds, races and nationalities. Starting during the troubled days of apartheid, this multi-racial education and experiential program spawned a global network of conservationists from all sectors of life committed to saving wilderness and wildlife…During most of this journey he was accompanied by his mentor and friend, Zulu game guard Magqubu Ntombela, who died in 1992 at close to 100 years of age.”
Player recalled his 40-year acquaintance with Ntombela in Zulu Wilderness: Shadow and Soul (1998).
Ian Player also helped to found the World Wilderness Congress, Wilderness Foundation (Africa), Wilderness Foundation (UK), and the Peace Parks Foundation, which works to create transfrontier wildlife protection areas, incl
uding at the junction of South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.
Initially lacking access to wild habitat in which to release white rhinos rescued by Operation Rhino from extermination, Player exported many to zoos in the U.S. and Europe, and produced a documentary film called Operation Rhino to explain his work. The documentary inspired U.S. filmmaker Howard Hawks to base 1962 film Hatari!, starring John Wayne, on Player’s exploits.
Making the film in turn set up another conservation achievement. Ranchers had killed every African lion in Zululand by 1945, but in 1958 a lion wandered in from Mozambique. A black-maned male, perhaps a relict of the presumably extinct Cape lion subspecies, this lone individual survived alone for five years, evading heavily armed motorized posses.
During the making of Hatari!, Player told Cape Town Star reporter Tony Carnie circa 35 years later, a local stuntman secretly released a tame lioness as an intended companion to the male. She was unable to feed herself, and was shot a few nights later when she began eating laundry on the front veranda of a local ranger.
That brought sympathetic attention to the enforced celibacy of the male. Several wild lionesses arrived in 1965, believed to have been smuggled into the region by game rangers acting in defiance of government policy.
The current Hluhluwe/Umfolozi lion population are believed to be descended entirely from this limited gene pool.
Mostly, though, Ian Player was known for his work on behalf of rhions. “It is because of Dr. Ian Player that there are still rhinos around for us to save,” wrote Rachel Lang for Africa Geographic in 2012.
But Player was deeply disturbed by the explosion of rhino poaching that has seen the annual toll rise from just 13 throughout South Africa in 2007 to 1,004 in 2013 and 1,024 in the 11 months of 2014 preceding his death.
“What is happening to the rhino is symptomatic of the environment as a whole,” he told Lang. “The Greeks have a name for the earth, Gaia, which means mother. I think Mama is getting a bit tired of us now and she will make us all listen…The tragedy of our species is that we don’t pay enough attention to what happened in the past. If we did, we certainly wouldn’t have gone to war. During World War I, 40 million people were killed and 60,000 men were wounded on one day. It still hovers over us like a spectre. Only 20 years later and then there was World War II … history was staring at us in the face and we didn’t pay any attention! History should be our teacher and that’s the same with the environment.”
Favored trophy hunting
Player, however, endorsed and promoted models of wildlife conservation which presume that sport hunters will always be willing and able to pay enough for hunting privileges to fund protection of endangered species and critical habitat––an increasingly questionable presumption, as the numbers of affluent hunters decline, while the prices paid for poached wildlife products have enabled poachers to out-equip and outgun government wildlife agencies on every continent.
Player in 2005 questioned whether the future of black rhinos had been sufficiently secured to allow them to be hunted, after the KwaZulu-Natal wildlife department authorized hunters to kill five bull rhinos, more than 30 years after they last had been legally hunted.
Asking South African president Jacob Zuma in November 2011 to “urgently increase government efforts and take a personal interest in this very serious struggle to protect and save Africa’s heritage, symbolised by the rhino,” Player acknowledged that “It is imperative that the hunting organizations monitor the bad apples in the hunting fraternity and expose them, because if they don’t, they will suffer severely and this will be detrimental to the conservation of all species in Africa.”
But Player at the same time argued that legal hunting “made a significant contribution to the recovery of the white rhino population because it was worthwhile for game owners to breed them,” summarized Don Pinnock in Our Rhino War (2012).
Endorsed selling rhino horn
Player also endorsed a scheme to attempt to reduce poaching pressure by selling rhino horns from rhinos who died of natural causes and/or confiscated from poachers. Similar schemes set up to sell stockpiled elephant ivory have repeatedly stimulated demand, while providing cover for exponentially increased poaching and trafficking.
Player in February 2013 rose in opposition to Zimbabwean exports of baby elephants to Chinese zoos. “The sale of animals to destinations where it is known the animals will not be properly cared for, and facilities that are inadequate, is absolutely and morally wrong,” Player told Africa Geographic Blog.
But in February 2014, Tony Carnie reported for The Mercury, of KwaZulu-Natal, Player endorsed “a bold plan to move dozens of South African rhinos to Australia as part of a global ‘insurance policy’ to guard against their extinction.
“The Australian Rhino Project, spearheaded by a former South African businessman now living in Australia, as well as the Taronga Zoo, could ultimately result in the establishment of breeding populations in Australia,” explained Carnie. “It coincides with a separate plan by safari operators to move 100 South African rhinos to Botswana next year.”
Calling the idea “nothing new,” Player told Carnie that some parts of Australia appear to be habitat ideal for both black and white rhino.
“This is something we have been doing since 1961,” Player said. “We took hundreds of rhinos to Zimbabwe in the 1960s and 1970s to restock the Hwange reserve and now we hear that the last one has been killed.”
Player also helped to move more than 50 rhinos to the Maputo Elephant Reserve in Mozambique, “but they too were wiped out,” Carnie wrote.
Acknowledged Player, “Yes, that is an indictment against countries that have allowed them to become extinct, and makes it all the more our responsibility to ensure that there must be animals who can be brought back if necessary.”
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