Zululand, on the eastern coast of the Republic of South Africa, is a giant Noah's ark on the emerging flood tides of modern Africa, a last sanctuary against the onslaught of industrialization. The latter-day Noah who guards the flora and fauna of this 10,500-square-mile section of the province of Natal is Ian Player, brother of the famous golfer and a man of remarkable accomplishments in his own right. Under Player's jurisdiction are Zululand's half-million acres of game reserves and parks, some 300 miles of coastline, 445 wildlife management officers, game guards and other personnel, and more than a million game creatures. It is a formidable trust. But for Ian Player it is only part of a much broader trust, for his concern extends far beyond the boundaries of Zululand. It encompasses all wilderness and wildlife everywhere.
Player's Operation Rhino, the subject of films, books, television shows and countless articles, has been acclaimed as the classic conservation success story. The World Wildlife Fund has called him the savior of the white rhino. Game Conservation International (Game Coin) once named him its Conservationist of the Year.
In the U.S., Player has been called a visionary, but in South Africa he is considered a radical. At home he has had to fight not only the apathy of an unenlightened and indifferent public but the opposition of the very agencies that should be working to change such apathy. This uphill battle is the kind Player has come to know best.
Ian Cedric Audley Player was born 45 years ago, not in the African bush but in the highly urbanized city of Johannesburg, near the gold mines where his father worked. From childhood he was plagued by a series of injuries to his right knee that put him in and out of hospitals for months at a time and forced him to wear a leg brace. But he refused to give in to the knee trouble. Instead he launched himself on an exhausting program of physical rehabilitation, which, to the astonishment of his doctors, eventually enabled him to shed the brace and talk his way into the army during World War II. He saw action—bad leg and all—with an armored division in Italy.
"Failure does not exist in Ian's vocabulary," says Gary Player of his older brother. "Whatever he takes on he has to do better than anyone. I remember as kids, Tan was always pressing me, making me do endless push-ups, forcing me to run when I was too tired to walk. In spite of his bad knee, I couldn't keep up with him. One time, when I was about eight, we were running this five-mile course. My lungs were bursting. Finally I just collapsed on the side of the road. I told Ian I couldn't make it. He pulled me to my feet and cuffed me across the ear. 'What do you mean, you can't make it, man?' he shouted. His face was red and he was furious. 'You can make anything you set out to do. Just remember that, man, anything. There is no room for can't in this life.' I don't know how, but I finished the five miles,"
Gary Player credits much of his later success to the perseverance taught him by Ian, who fashioned his younger brother's first golf club out of a stick and taught him how to use it.
When Ian left school at 16 to join the army he was only months away from graduation. His friends and family were shocked that he did not wait for his diploma. Player, characteristically, was shocked that anyone would consider staying in school when a war of such magnitude was being fought.
Player did not return to school after the war, but worked at a series of unrelated jobs—as a commercial fisherman, a shipping clerk and a miner—drifting from one to the next with neither interest nor direction. It was while he was working in an aluminum company in Pietermaritzburg, Natal that the idea of canoeing from that city to Durban, a port on the Indian Ocean, began first as a fanciful dream and then materialized into an adventure that has become part of the modern folklore of South Africa.
Today the annual Pietermaritzburg-Durban Canoe Race, which grew out of Player's exploit, is one of the best-known sporting events in the country, attracting hundreds of entries and thousands of spectators. But in 1950 the Umsunduzi and Umgeni rivers, which loosely connect the two cities via 110 obstacle-strewn miles of rapids, falls, logjams and weirs, had never been successfully navigated. The challenge of conquering these waters became Player's all-consuming ambition.
Years later he wrote in his book Men, Rivers and Canoes of the efforts that went into realizing this ambition. His account of repeated brushes with disaster in the form of waterfalls, whirlpools, capsizings, crocodiles and snakes reads like a script for an old Hollywood serial. He reached Durban finally, delirious and close to death from the poisonous bite of a night adder and suffering from dysentery, sunburn and a dislocated shoulder. But the accomplishment proved worth the price, for it was this challenge that awoke him to the greater ones that lay before him. It was on the river that he made his decision to become a game ranger.