Conservation legend passes away

Renowned South African nature conservationist Dr Ian Player has died. Player helped save the white rhino from extinction, founded and participated in the Dusi canoe marathon and dedicated his life to the wilderness, which he called a “salvation”. He was 87 years old.

“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.” tweeted Player’s brother, golfing legend Gary Player on Friday, giving rise to rumours of Dr Player’s death. Player was critically ill, having suffered a stroke last week. He died peacefully on Sunday at his home in the Karkloof Valley in KwaZulu-Natal, surrounded by his family.

Dr Ian Player was born in 1927. He was educated at St John’s College in Johannesburg and served with the 6th South African Armoured Division in Italy during World War II. On returning home, Player initiated and launched the first Dusi Canoe Marathon in 1951. Player won the inaugural race, despite being bitten by a snake during the six-day event. Out of eight competitors, he was the only one to complete the race. While paddling, Player is said to have observed the lack of wildlife along the river banks.

Player’s conservation career began in 1952 with the Natal Parks’ Game and Fish Preservation Board. By 1954 he had been promoted to Senior Ranger and by 1962 he was Senior Warden of iMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal – the oldest reserve in Africa.

Player’s renown as a conservationist began when he spearheaded “Operation Rhino” in the late 1960s. At the time, there were only a few hundred southern white rhino in existence. He started a relocation programme and breeding groups were established elsewhere in the country and in the world in a final attempt to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.

The success of Operation Rhino was unprecedented. 90% of white rhino – a population of about 20 000 – are now found in South Africa. Speaking to IOL News, the chairman of SANParks’ conservation committee, Gerry Swan, called Player a conservation icon. “I think, specifically for rhino, he has played a vital role in re-establishing rhino populations in the Kruger.”

During his career as a conservationist, Player helped found a number of important non-racial initiatives. With the help of his friend and mentor, Zulu chief Qumbu Magqubu Ntombela, Player started The Wilderness Leadership School, The WILD Foundation, World Wilderness Congress, Wilderness Foundation (Africa) and Wilderness Foundation (UK), among others. He continued to be a wildlife advocate until his death. He is also the author of several books, including The White Rhino Saga, which details Operation Rhino and the birth of rhino conservation in Africa.

In a statement released by the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa, PHASA head Adri Kitshoff said that “Dr Ian Player is without a doubt the grandfather of conservation in South Africa.”

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