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.