Ian Cedric Player (1927-2014) was a South African environmental educator, conservationist, sportsman and activist, widely known for saving the White Rhino from extinction through Operation Rhino.

Ian Player received his education at St John’s College, Johannesburg and served with the 6th South African Armoured Division attached to the American 5th Army in Italy 1944 – 1946.

Ian Player is the brother of world-renowned, Grand Slam golfer Gary Player.

Dr. Player had a long and successful career in environmental conservation and has inspired many who continue his legacy today by working to save endangered species and natural spaces.

You can read more about Dr. Player in the sections below or explore multimedia from his life and career.

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The Leaf by Ian Player
(Excerpt from Wilderness, proceedings of the 2nd World Wilderness Congress (Australia, 1980), V. Martin (ed), Findhorn Press, 1982.)

When I was tramping the iMfolozi game reserve in Zululand in the early 1950s and thinking about starting the Wilderness Leadership School, I knew it was essential to select the right symbol. Most conservation organizations in Africa had used horned heads of antelope or rhino or carnivora. These had become cliche symbols with no real meaning. I wanted the Wilderness Leadership School symbol to be significant, simple, different and non-aggressive.

One evening, sitting at the camp fire, the sounds of the African night echoing all around me, I remembered as though in a dream a story of Grey Owl and how he saved the beaver of Canada. In my youth I had read his book and in later life became intensely interested in his philosophy of wilderness.

Grey Owl’s real name was Archie Belaney and he came from Hastings in England. He joined the Ojibway Indian people and became accepted as a member of the tribe. He took Indian wives and hunted and trapped in the wild country of Ontario. His wife Anahero persuaded him to stop trapping. Grey Owl became a writer and lecturer and his fame spread across the world. He tried to lay a false trail about his origins and created a mystique about non-existent Indian forefathers. When he died he was accused of being a fraud but people had simply misunderstood what he was trying to do.

Toward the end of his life he was in the United Kingdom. He was a very sick man. Years of frontier living and wounds from the 1914-1918 war had weakened his body. He was on his last lecture tour and no doubt had premonitions of his death. But he spoke with nostalgia about the great rivers, the vast forests and the high mountains of Canada, the wildlife, the Indian people and the spirit of the wilderness. The he said to his audience: “You are tired with years of civilisation. I come and offer you what? …a single green leaf.”

In my musings I remembered the leaf and knew that this had to be the symbol of the Wilderness Leadership School.

I told my old friend Magqubu Ntombela, the Zulu who had been my game scout and mentor, that I wanted a leaf that would represent what I had in mind, an organisation that would give people an experience in wild country.

At that particular time I was looking for a wilderness area in Mfolozi game reserve, and together we had walked many miles along the banks of the two Mfolozi rivers. The old Zulu said he would think about a leaf and as we walked he pointed out different trees. Then one morning we left camp early and he took me down the Black Mfolozi river towards the junction of the two rivers. This was the hunting ground of all the great Zulu kings–Tshaka, Mpande, Dingane and Dinizulu. Magqubu called out the praise names and spoke to the spirits of his forefathers who had been here with the kings and with Tashaka when he had single-handedly killed an elephant with a hunting axe.

Then he stopped at a tree the Zulus call msinsi; in Latin Erythrina caffra. Magqubu plucked a leaf and said, like a Biblical injunction, “Thatha Lokhu–take this. Take this leaf because it comes from a tree that is a tree of the wild and you will also find it next to every kraal. So it is a tree of the people too.”

The three points of the leaf symbolize the most important relationships in the world: person to divinity; person to soil; person to person. Many years later I realised that the fourth relationship was the internal relationship of each of us to ourselves, and that was as big a mystery as the leaf itself.

So the Erythrina leaf became the symbol of the Wilderness Leadership School. All the men who complete a trail receive a tie or a blazer badge while the women receive a brooch in the shape of the leaf. When they pass each other in the street and the see the symbol of the leaf, they know what that symbol means.

In 1977 at the first World Wilderness Congress, the Erythrina leaf was chosen as the Congress logo. Arrows pointing towards it were added. This represented a call to people from all over the world to come and talk about Grey Owl’s cri de coeur: “You are tired with years of civilization. I come and offer you what? …a single green leaf.”

“The three points of the leaf symbolize the most important relationships in the world: person to divinity; person to soil; person to person. ” – Dr. Ian Player


Ian Player is well known as being the initiator and team leader of an innovative project ‘Operation Rhino’. This successful effort resulted in numerous independent research papers. He also initiated a number of documentaries and acted as a technical advisor to Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, who made the movie ‘Rhino!’ This resulted in an invitation to visit the United States as a guest of MGM.

He went on to establish a program of selling breeding colonies of White Rhinoceros to many zoological gardens and safari parks outside of the Republic of South Africa in order to assure their survival as a species. Some of the initial sales were to the San Diego Zoo and Orange County Zoo in the United States and Whipsnade Zoo in the U.K.

In addition he established a successful anti-poaching network in South African game reserves which resulted in an impressive reduction in poaching and predation. During the 1960s, Ian Player conducted eco-surveys of crocodile and hippopotamus populations and of the avifauna at the Ndumu Game Reserve. He conducted “Operation Crocodile” at Lake St. Lucia, which saw the first helicopter airlift of crocodiles from the high salinity area of the Mkuze River, to the fresher regions of the southern part of the Lake.


His conservation career started under Col. J.Vincent with the Natal Parks, Game and Fish Preservation Board in 1952. By 1954 he was promoted to Senior Ranger and in 1962 Senior Warden of iMfolozi Game Reserve. Whilst Warden of the iMfolozi Game Reserve, he spearheaded two key initiatives:

· Operation Rhino – which saved the few remaining Southern race of White rhino
· Wilderness areas in iMfolozi and St. Lucia – The first wilderness areas to be zoned in South Africa and on the African continent.

In 1964 he became Chief Conservator for Zululand. His final promotion was Chief Nature Conservator for Natal and Zululand.


Ian Player has lectured, promoted conservation films and raised money for environmental projects both within the Republic of South Africa and internationally. He has founded and influenced international conservation links and relationships throughout Africa, Europe and the United States of America. Organisational membership is as follows:

Wilderness Leadership School (W.L.S.) South Africa. (Founder)
World Wilderness Congresses (W.W.C.). (Founder).
Wilderness Foundation, U.K. (Founder).
Wilderness Foundation, Germany. (Member).
Wilderness Action Group (W.A.G.). (Member).
Game Rangers Association of Africa. (Member).
South African Association of Jungian Analysts (formerly Jungian Society). (Founder member).
Dusi Canoe Marathon. (Founder).
Natal Canoe Club. (Founder member).
Magqubu Ntombela Foundation. (Founder).
Wildlands Conservation Trust. (Member).
Wilderness International Leadership Development. (W.I.L.D) (formerly International Wilderness Leadership Foundation IWLF), United States of America. (Founder).

Ian Player Established the first World Wilderness Congresses, which convened in October, 1977 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Over 2000 of the world’s leading scientists, politicians, financial leaders, poets, artists, etc., shared the platform to focus attention on the need for conservation and protection of wilderness areas and how such goals can be accomplished. Now an established triennial event, the 2nd Congress was held in Australia (1980), the 3rd in Scotland (1983), the 4th in the United States (1987), the 5th in Norway (1992) , the 6th in India (1997), the 7th in Port Elizabeth, South Africa (2001) and 8th in Anchorage, Alaska (2005). The 9th will be held in Merida, on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico (Nov 6th – 13th, 2009). www.wild9.org

Ian Player travelled extensively in the Far East, Europe, Australia and the United States, lecturing and raising funds for worthy conservation projects. Significantly, he was asked by President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines to help conserve the endangered Tamaraw, a miniature buffalo, and travelled to that country seven times while implementing a Tamaraw conservation programme.


Ian Player introduced Wilderness Trails to the game reserves of the Natal Parks Board. As a result of being introduced to the concept by ranger colleague, Jim Feely, he founded the Wilderness Leadership School; a unique conservation education programme to develop leaders and preserve wilderness, with Magqubu Ntombela. More than 50,000 people of all races and many nations have passed through this school and have made a great impact on conservation matters in their communities and countries. The school has also used walking trails as a platform for reconciliation between races in South Africa and traditionally adversarial groups within Northern Ireland.

Established a training programme for rangers and trained many young game rangers who are now known worldwide. Established facilities in the remote game reserves of Ndumu, iMfolozi, Mkuzi, Lake St. Lucia and Mtunzini for the Natal Parks Board. This opened these wild areas to the public for enjoyment and nature appreciation.

Raised the initial funds for and was the co-founder with Sir Laurens van der Post of the Wilderness Foundation (United Kingdom) (formerly the Wilderness Trust) in the British Isles. This Foundation currently takes British people on foot into the wilderness areas of Africa and Scotland. Participants from Northern and Southern Ireland now regularly go on trail into Scotland and learn to reconcile their differences.


In 1951 Ian Player initiated the Dusi Canoe Marathon, between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, South Africa. The race now attracts over 2,000 competitors each year from around the globe. Ian Player won the first six-day race in 1951 despite being bitten by a night adder during the course. Two more victories followed in 1953 and 1954. He was a founding member of the Natal Canoe Club. Canoeing is now acknowledged as an important competitive sport and the Dusi Canoe Marathon continues to raise awareness for conservation issues.