A true ‘giant of conservation’

2014-12-02 00:00

THE most dynamic wildlife ­conservation personality the world has ever experienced.

This is how the late Dr Ian Player’s close friend and fellow conservationist Dave Cook describes the man most ­renowned in wildlife circles for saving the southern white rhino from almost ­certain extinction in the 1950s.

In Player’s own words in his book The White Rhino Saga, he expresses the awe he felt when he saw his first two white rhino bulls in iMfolozi Game Reserve.

“These were truly creatures of a bygone age. The two rhinos grazed as they moved, their heads swinging in scythe-like motion as they fed on the grass. I watched them move through the grey nthombothi trees into a cluster of candelabra aloes, and disappear into the mist. I had a sudden feeling that my life would in some way be bound up with these ­prehistoric animals,” wrote Player.

And so his prediction came to pass.

At the time Player was a 25-year-old game ranger at iMfolozi.

Under his leadership, the population of 437 surviving white rhinos in iMfolozi burgeoned until by 1959 there were at least 1 000. More drastic measures had to be employed as the existing 72 000-acre territory was far too small to sustain the increasing population.

And so Player led the drive to repopulate Africa’s game reserves and ­translocate white rhinos to zoos and ­safari parks all over the world, using then unheard of techniques to capture and ­relocate the huge creatures.

The drugs used by vet Toni Harthoorn were at an experimental stage and the capture team experienced many ­hair-raising times.

“These were dramatic days and Ian also faced some opposition, even from the government of the day, who thought that iMfolozi’s status as home to the rare white rhino might suffer,” recalls Cook.

But in a strange twist of fate, South Africa’s rhino population is facing yet another onslaught from poachers who so far this year have already slaughtered a record 1 020 rhinos throughout the country, according to Save the Rhino.

And Player’s views about what he saw as a solution to the latest crisis are strongly expressed in the documentary film Rhino in Crisis; A Blueprint for ­Survival. Filmed by the local Osprey Film Co. and presented by a group of ­like-minded conservationists, The Conservation Imperative, the movie coincidentally premieres in Pietermaritzburg at Victoria Country Club tonight.

The film examines the potential of a legal trade in rhino horn, which Player endorsed.

“Sadly, he [Player] has missed out on his dream of turning this [the rhino poaching epidemic] around,” says Cook.

With rhino horn worth $65 000 (R715 000) a kilogram, he and others, like Player, believe the future of rhinos can be secured by legalising the trade in horn, of which South Africa already has vast stockpiles.

The horns can also be harvested without harming the animals.

The views are controversial and there are many detractors.

Cook says the film features interviews with 30 scientists around the world. “It is a story devoid of sentiment and full of common sense.”

But rhinos were not the only thing close to Player’s heart. “Ian dedicated 62 years of his life to conservation and ­wilderness, including establishing the ­historic iMfolozi wilderness area in 1958 after a long battle. When news broke ­earlier this year that Ibutho Coal was ­going to put an open cast mine a mere 40 metres from the southern boundary fence, Ian rose to the challenge,” says ­another close friend, Sheila Berry.

“Though fully engaged in the anti-rhino poaching battle, he gave his backing to the Save our Imfolozi Wilderness campaign,” said Berry, who spearheads the campaign. She said the campaign is ­determined to stop the Fuleni mine as a tribute to Player’s memory.

Berry was at the Player farm, ­Phuzamoya, in Karkloof when he died following a stroke.

“Not only was Ian a great man in terms of how he lived his life, but he affirmed his greatness in the way he died. It is said a great sage does not die, but fades away. This was true of Ian. He drifted gently from this life to the next, bringing ­comfort to his wife, Ann, and loving family,” said Berry.

Andrew Zaloumis, CEO of ­iSimangaliso Wetland Park, said he received news of Player’s death while on a dune on the Eastern Shores, which was to be mined in the early 1990s.

“As I looked over Lake St Lucia, I recalled Ian’s tears as he stood with us while the last pine tree on the dunes toppled. In a century when the Earth is being badly injured and harmed, nature is desperately in need of wise guardians to protect it. As a man ahead of his time, Ian was such a sage … For those of us in the trenches, he will be sorely missed,” he said.

Meanwhile, it was also announced yesterday that the 2015 Dusi Canoe Marathon, the race Player helped establish 64 years ago, will pay special tribute to him.

He was also the winner of the first ­Dusi. Dusi’s Brett Austen Smith said Player’s vision and perspective were ­inspiring and his passion for adventure and conservation would always be ­cherished by the 12 374 men and women who have followed his footsteps and completed a Dusi, as well as those who will start next year in his memory.

Player continually applied pressure on municipalities to pay more attention to the state of rivers in KZN and particularly the Msunduzi and Umgeni rivers that play host to the Dusi.

Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa and the SA National Parks Board also paid tribute to Player yesterday, ­calling him “one of the giants” of the conservation industry.

Afriforum’s Julius Kleynhans hailed Player as “one of the greatest ­conservationists of all times” and said his legacy would continue as the battle against rhino poaching is far from over.

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