Dr. Ian Player – Globally Recognised Wilderness And Conservation Legend
Photo Courtesy: The Wild Foundation.
Dr. Ian Player, globally recognised wilderness and conservation legend, passed away peacefully on November 30, 2014, at age 87, at Phuzamoya, his family homestead in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa. He was a giant of a man, who influenced some of the most powerful conservationists of today, across the planet. A visionary and an activist, he also profoundly impacted conservation policies and changed the lives of countless people in his native South Africa. His work is well documented in many books and the dozens of obituaries published around the world.
Ian walked across the foyer at the 2nd World Wilderness Congress (WWC) in Cairns (Australia, 1980) looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and said, “You’re Vance Martin, you live in Scotland at the Findhorn Foundation and I want to know all about it and you. Please join Laurens van der Post and me tonight to tell our stories. We want to hear yours.” This was heady stuff for me, a 31-year-old who had abandoned forestry studies at university in order to study English literature, thinking then that no one else understood what I actually felt about nature and what perhaps I wanted to do with my life… except the man named Laurens van der Post, whose books had held me rapt since I was a teenager and, I was soon to learn, also Ian Player.
Photo: Trevor Barrett.
The encounter felt fateful. Ian’s gravitas was impossible to ignore, conveying at once a sense of imposing leadership, practical accomplishment, and intellectual depth. I was soon to understand and appreciate that this gravitas was well-balanced by a deep sense of humour as bawdy and ironic as it was infectious. And so it began.
In 1984, after 13 years of living and working abroad, at Ian’s urging I returned to the United States to build The WILD Foundation. Ian’s offer was characteristic: “There’s no money, you’ll need to raise it. I’ll help.” For many years, we lived in each other’s pockets for long periods of time, travelling and working in Africa, Europe, Russia, Central Asia, India, Australia, and North America. Adequate funding was a perennial issue, but we both believed that money follows right thought and good action. And so we continued.
For many of those years, despite his accomplishment and acclaim in many quarters, Ian’s identity as a South African also created a burden. Before South Africa’s ‘Mandela transition’ of the early 90s, Ian often said that South African politics were wrong and, as a result, his homeland was the “polecat of the world.” Despite this, the stain of apartheid-by-association often affected how he was treated, and certainly the way that the liberal, international environmental movement and the United Nations community shunned him for many years while the conservative hunting/safari community feted him as a hero. I was with him when he was (literally) strip-searched in immigration when we entered Norway (a common form of low-level, political harassment). Equally, ‘environmentalists’ sometimes ignored Ian’s personal example of the profound relationship he had with his Zulu companion and mentor, Magqubu Ntombela, and they often regarded him as an apartheid collaborator simply because he lived in South Africa. In those days I learned as much or more about politics and hypocrisy as I did about nature conservation.
I realised quickly that it was up to me to open a wedge in formal international conservation into which we could insert the strange concept called wilderness. As incongruous as it sounds to ‘normal’ people who simply love nature, those of us in this tiny wilderness niche within the small bubble called international nature conservation know the difficulties involved. As well as the understandable attack by extractive industries, there was often the equally strong push-back from other conservationists who considered the concept “unscientific” and “too cultural”. While diminished in some ways, these obstacles are ever with us.
Even though he grew up professionally in the rough-and-tumble of post-war nature conservation in Africa, Ian emphatically espoused the spiritual impact of wilderness, and was undoubtedly the first major international wildlife manager to repeatedly use the “S word” (as he and I referred to it, when considering the opposition it often drew) in all his presentations on the importance and benefits of protecting wilderness. This was also a core part of what I felt about nature, the lack of which had driven me out of formal natural resource education when I was in university, and the active recognition of which was much of the glue that bonded Ian and me.
It was the unique combination of the sacred and the profane… or mundane… that was the totality of Ian, that befuddled his critics and informed his accomplishments. The campaign for St. Lucia is an excellent example. This was at the time that we were just starting the battle to protect the fabulous, wild eastern shores of Lake St. Lucia (the largest estuary on Africa’s east coast) from proposed titanium mining by RTZ, the global mining behemoth. We patched together a small but experienced consortium to fight the Goliath on this critical issue. Our position was clear. We are not against mining, but some places must be “no-go” areas because of their unique ecological, cultural, and spiritual values. Lake St. Lucia is such a place. I worked the international side, as usual, Ulf Doerner worked brilliantly in Germany, and a consortium of many groups and people came together in South Africa. There Ian declared to reporters that he would personally lay in front of the bulldozers if the mining started.
Photo Courtesy: The Wild Foundation.
One story in this campaign illustrates Ian’s unusual combination of internal perspective and external action. I attended a conference in Namibia (then SW Africa) in the early 1990s, without Ian, at which were many politicians and conservationists. One of the attendees was a well-known conservationist and former wilderness guide (Trails Officer) for the Wilderness Leadership School (WLS – founded by Ian in the early 1960s) who went on to work as a PR spokesman for RTZ. Ian remarked to me at the time, “I know him well, and he has now adopted a very different set of values… his inner conflict will be terrible.” At that reception in Namibia, when the subject emerged of our opposition to and campaign against the St. Lucia mining, this man loudly pronounced that, “Old Ian has this one wrong.” The topic of conversation soon changed, yet I noticed that he was quietly absorbed in thought. Then, a few minutes later, he suddenly declared to those standing with him (and by that time completely out of context), “But the problem with Ian is that even when he’s wrong, he’s right!” The interesting and sad thing was that less than two years later this man died of a massive heart attack, tragically leaving behind a young family. Ian’s earlier comments to me had foreshadowed this because he knew that, ultimately, one’s core, internal values cannot be denied without an impact.
The Campaign for St. Lucia was a turning point in African conservation history. After two years of (incredibly under-funded) campaigning, in which many committed volunteers mobilised a grassroots opposition in South Africa, complemented by a strategic international condemnation by key individuals, one of President Mandela’s first acts was to cancel RTZ’s mining concession. Mining was stopped – for the first time in Africa -- because of the unique values of a globally significant wilderness area. Today, the Isamangaliso Wetland Park is a complex of nature reserves, parks, and community conservation areas that helps uplift local people while protecting 3,280 sq. km. of the Lake’s eastern shores along the Indian Ocean, the lake itself, and the fabulous extensive wetlands of St. Lucia. It is also now a globally recognised, UNESCO designated, World Heritage Area.
Ian’s personal dualism – the spiritual and the practical – also extended to politics. In addition to likely being the most well-read and intellectually versed of anyone in Africa on the life and work of pioneering Swiss psychoanalyst, Dr. Carl Jung, Ian also studied the use of personal power, reading multiple biographies of all great leaders and internalising the inherent qualities and learned behaviours of those who wield power. Of the many things I gleaned from him in this regard was the very simple truth: “He who writes the notes creates the history.”
Over 34 years after I shared stories with Ian and Sir Laurens in Australia at the 2nd WWC, the great tree fell. Despite the fact that we had ample warning and could see it leaning ever more to the side, when it crashed to the ground it inevitably left a gaping hole in the canopy. But that hole is being filled by a host of people who were inspired, energised, sometimes irritated, and always informed by his presence, example, and undying commitment to a world in which wild nature and humans exist and evolve together. There is only one way to go… and that’s forward.
Photo: Trevor Barrett.
Working through the growing community of delegates generated through the World Wilderness Congress (WWC), WILD has created and continues to strengthen a niche for wilderness in international conservation. Over 25 years WILD has developed: an accepted international definition; a Protected Area category recognised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN); a Wilderness Specialists Group within the World Commission on Protected Areas; a growing number of nations (now 11) that have national de jure declaration of wilderness, and many more with de facto recognition; the first international agreement on wilderness (between Canada, Mexico, and the United States; the NAWPA Committee); a multi-faceted, multi-lingual ‘wilderness toolkit' for professional policymakers and managers including the International Handbook on Wilderness Law and Policy, a wilderness management textbook (four editions), an International Journal of Wilderness (for 20 years now, www.IJW.org), publications on tribal/community wildlands, and an archive of Proceedings, scientific, and popular publications spawned by the WWCs. WILD even has an international, hip-hop strategy for wilderness (the Rap Guide to Wilderness by Baba Brinkman). Despite the fact that Ian disliked rap music, he understood the strategy (to reach out to new people, younger, urban demographic) when the author, Vance Martin, played the first song less than a year before he passed.
Author: Vance G. Martin, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 1, February 2015.