Ian’s Legacy

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Ian Player’s memorial two weeks ago was attended by over 800 people, who represented all aspects of his full and varied life: friends and family, colleagues in conservation, Wilderness Foundation associates, the Bateleurs-Flying for Africa, the ’Jung ones’, and many people who have been on trail or met him through the Wilderness Leadership School.

Ian is, and always will be, remembered as the man who saved the southern white rhino from extinction, by taking a the small population from iMfolozi game reserve and re-populating them across Africa and around the world. It is a well-known conservation success story.  Less well known is the work he did to protect wilderness in iMfolozi, and to promote an understanding and awareness of the essential value of wilderness for all life on earth.

While he was stationed in iMfolozi for the Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo), Ian and his guide Magqubu Ntombela mapped out trails in the area that would later be proclaimed and set aside as ’Wilderness Area’, and founded the Wilderness Leadership School so that others could, literally, follow in their footsteps. The security, comforts and routine of life in society were to be left behind, so that a small group could take a five-day guided walk into the African bush, sleeping under the stars, and carrying all essentials – food, clothing, and sleeping mat, in a backpack, to live with wildlife and experience the true meaning of wild-ness.

This is also the legacy of Ian Player; perhaps more important even than saving rhino is saving the habitat that they need to survive. The only way that we, as conservators of our planet, are going to protect the small pockets of wilderness that remain is to realise its value to ourselves as well.  We are a self-centred species and our often misplaced survival instincts are focused on our own lives: agriculture, heavy industry and energy production, and consumer-lead economic development, are all meant to serve the human race. They are also the most destructive forces for other species in the ’natural’ world. We have willingly separated ourselves from nature by the way we live our lives. It takes a conscious, physical act of will to remove oneself from a cosseted man-made environment to venture into the earth’s own wilderness, if only for a short time, but it can have a lasting impact on the way we live our lives afterward.

A wilderness trail is an opportunity to rediscover our vital connection to the natural world, as time slows and the days and nights fall into a rhythm in tune with the movement of the earth. It brings balance back into our lives allowing a rediscovery of our links to the ancient, original roots of mankind in Africa. It feels like coming home; it is a transformative experience, almost a rite of passage.

As Ian himself beautifully wrote in the late 1950’s:

“Lying in the cave on this lovely African night in a land inhabited by wild animals with their own mysterious rhythms made me feel part of the universe. I could identify with the sounds of the night, the scents and the atmosphere. There was a tone and a rhythm that was beating in time with my soul. Some part of me had always been here, and everything that was happening around me evoked this sense of connectedness.”

This, to me, is his legacy; he changed my life and I thank him for it.

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2015

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The unofficial statistic of 1215 rhino poached in 2014 is hard to accept. What’s worse is that it equates to more than one rhino poached every 8 hours. South Africa, and its national parks should be in lockdown mode, and globally we should hang our heads in shame for standing by as one of the most iconic animals in Africa – on the planet – slowly slides toward extinction.

According to the IUCN, it was estimated that as of 2010 South Africa had 20,711 rhino. Since then, the DEA verified stats are 3473 rhino lost to poaching. These are extremely sobering, frightening statistics. 2014 was a very bad year for rhino, and 2015 might not be a happy one either unless the government stops talking and gets moving alongside the many people working round the clock to save rhino.

They are out there night and day to try to stop this horrific slaughter. Game guards, field rangers, canine and foot patrols, fundraisers, NGO’s and conservation organisations, social media sites, private rhino owners and orphanages…the list goes on. But where is the South African government’s sense of urgency and outrage in all of this?

Here is an excerpt from the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Minister Edna Molewa’s speech in Parliament, 02 Sept 2014:

“Honourable Members, the lure of the poacher is a strong one…especially if you believe your future to be bleak and your prospects to be non-existent.

But it is a road we are determined to dissuade them from taking. And it starts with the young. The seeds of national pride in our rhino and its protection are most fertile in the minds of the youth.  The values of pride, responsibility, and duty to protect – once successfully instilled in them, never leave. But we cannot promise them words alone. It is our responsibility to redirect the energies of the young towards useful, income generating projects that mean they remain far from the poacher’s snare.

Our very first impressions of the recently convened public hearings into rhino poaching tell us that if offered alternatives, communities are inclined towards upliftment and conservation – not crime.

We are a country committed to sustainable utilization of natural resources. Which is why Cabinet has also authorized my department to explore the feasibility of a legal trade in rhino horn products. The application of economic fundamentals to issues around a proposed legal trade, also known as rhinonomics: is among the terms of reference of a Panel of Experts appointed to look into this issue ahead of the CITES Conference of Parties in 2016.”

We agree with the minister that conservation starts with the young, and that responsibility and the duty to protect must be instilled from an early age. However, we must now ask politicians for answers: how will legal trade support sustainable utilization and create “useful, income generating projects” that will stop poaching and save the rhino?

Many important questions have gone unanswered since 2013, when the Rhino Issue Management (RIM) Report first made recommendations to government regarding rhino safety and security, and commerce. In the intervening years, poaching has escalated alarmingly and the market for rhino horn has evolved and diversified. Much of the illegal trade now centers on expensive status gifts, such as heavy bead bracelets and carved objects.

If the DEA intends to propose trade at CITES in 2016, then they must end the secrecy and put forward their plan. The continuing speculation about government policy and the mechanics of rhinonomics has been an ongoing distraction that has played into the hands of criminals during the last three years of uncontrolled and increasingly brutal poaching.

Too much time has been wasted discussing, debating, and deliberating, while rhino keep dying. 2015 is the time to prioritise rhino poaching; put it high on the political agenda where it belongs. Educate both the young, and politicians, about the desperate urgency of this crisis. Positive action is needed. Prioritise , politicise, put in practice. No more debating, dithering, and dead rhino.

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