Dr Ian Player: A life with rhino
Photographer and writer Scott Ramsay recently travelled to Dr Ian Player’s home near Howick in KwaZulu-Natal to interview the renowned conservationist. The topic of discussion? The current rhino poaching epidemic that is threatening to undo all the good work that Dr Player and the parks board team did back in the 1960s when they saved the white rhino from extinction.
Scott Ramsay: What role has the rhino played in your life?
Dr Ian Player: I joined what was then the Natal Parks Board in 1952, towards the end of the Nagana campaign. All the game with the exception of the rhino had been killed, because people believed at the time that by killing wild animals, the tsetse flies would disappear. It was very much on a day like this, with heavy mist, that I walked up into the hills near Masinda in iMfolozi Park, and saw these rhino – these two white rhino. I was immediately struck by this very antediluvian animal, a very prehistoric animal. The white rhino has this very big hump on its back. One didn’t need a lot of imagination to see the prehistoric beast with a big fin. They were covered in flies. It was that moment that you look at something, and you know it’s going to be part of your life.
And Operation Rhino? What was the background to that?
The next year in October 1953, I was sent to do an aerial count with ranger Hendrik van Schoor. The rhino had been counted on foot before, but we could never have said it was accurate. Whereas when Hendrik and I went to do the aerial count, we went to the guys who had been doing the aerial spraying for the tsetse flies. One of them, a chap named Des van der Westhuizen knew the park from the air like the back of his hand. We counted 437 rhino and I was happy this was 98% accurate, because of the experience that Des had. Then began the systematic counting; in 1960, 11 years later, we did another count and there were 600 white rhino.
The other game had started to come back - animals like impala and nyala - but that period when there was no game inside iMfolozi, it meant that there was no competitive grazing, so the rhino had a field day. It was obvious that in 1960 the rhinos were increasing at such a rate that it was very important to move them. So you can imagine, there I was, 33 years old, in charge of the bulk of these extremely rare animals. After a long very bureaucratic battle, I persuaded my team that we would have to move some of the rhino out, and that was the beginning of Operation Rhino [which translocated rhinos to reserves elsewhere].
What are some of the reasons for the drastic increase in poaching of rhinos in the past three years?
In the past decade, tremendous wealth has been generated in the Far East. And there has always been this belief there that rhino horn has aphrodisiacal qualities. A new belief has come up now that it cures cancer. Then there’s the status symbol of the rhino horn dagger in Yemen. Some of these beliefs have been around for thousands of years, so you’re not going to change them overnight. But we need to remember that in the 1950s, we all used to have rhino horns as door stoppers.
How can we solve this poaching situation?
First of all, the conservation authorities are doing their absolute best. Secondly, I believe that it’s very important that the public become aware of what is happening, that they report anything that is suspicious. Thirdly, there should be extremely heavy penalties. Finally, one of the practical things is to raise money to pay informants. It’s crucially important, but it’s very difficult for statutory bodies to pay money for informers, so this is where the private organisations like the Magqubu Ntombela Foundation and the Wilderness Foundation are important.
How serious is this current crisis compared to previous times? And what would your late friend and mentor Mr Magqubu Ntombela have thought about the situation?
The poaching situation is much more serious now than it ever was, and I am very worried. Mr Ntombela was associated with the rhino since 1914, so he would have been extremely upset. He was born in what became called the corridor area, at Ongeni in the hills, and that was incorporated at a later stage into iMfolozi. He would have grown up with the rhinos. The rhino used to drink at the same pans as the cattle. The Zulu people never hunted rhino.
Is there anything positive that has come out of this recent poaching crisis?
The good thing that has come out has been the tremendous publicity that has taken place. And it has raised the awareness and it has made us realise how precious these wild animals and places all are. The environment in South Africa is under severe threat, and supersedes any political wrangles. We are all involved in this. The environment is most important - it is survival we are dealing with. It’s currently not a priority high up in government, but it should supersede politics. This rhino killing has helped raised the awareness about everything else.
To contribute to the continuing conservation efforts of Dr. Player, contact one of the following organisations:
Wilderness Foundation - www.wildernessfoundation.co.za
Wilderness Leadership School - www.wildernesstrails.org.za
Magqubu Ntombela Foundation - www.mnf.org.za