2014-12-01 Dr Ian Player

I’ve always been proud of the fact that I am related to the man who brought white rhinos back from the brink. Although I’ve never actually met Dr Ian Player and the relation is about as distant as they come, this tenuous link to the 'Grandfather of Conservation' left me feeling privileged, as though I were somehow connected to the Player legacy – a part, if only a tiny one, of South Africa’s greatest conversation success story. Sadly, I'll never get the chance to meet the man behind that story.

Dr Player died peacefully in his sleep at his home yesterday afternoon at the age of 87. It felt a little like losing a grandfather. The kind of grandfather with an authority and wisdom that demanded respect, overlaid with a kindness and warmth that nurtures passion and encourages action. A grandad full of thrilling stories that you'd proudly share with friends. 

Dr Player’s conservation career began in 1952 with the Natal Parks, Game and Fish Preservation Board, which was established to enforce laws relating to wildlife in South Africa's Natal province. Ten years later, as senior warden of the province's iMfolozi Game Reserve – an area of which he became a recognised ambassador – he spearheaded an initiative that would become his crowning achievement: Operation Rhino.

With South Africa's white rhinos hunted almost to extinction in the nineteenth century, the last remaining populations clung to survival in the iMfolozi and Hluhluwe reserves. It is from here that Player, together with a team of dedicated conservationists, launched a pioneering translocation programme to save the species. Surplus rhinos from the area were relocated to start new breeding populations at parks and reserves across the country, as well in zoos and other African countries. Rhinos owe Dr Player a great deal of gratitude.

Although we’ve lost an irreplaceable icon in the struggle to save Africa’s rhinos, we’re left with a legacy that inspires future conservation warriors to take up the fight. So it doesn’t really matter that I never got to meet Dr Player. As South Africa is rattled by record-breaking rhino poaching figures, what matters most is who will fill his shoes.

Earlier this year, we interviewed Dr Player for the World Youth Rhino Summit. Here are his words of encouragement to the next generation of conservation heroes: