Ian Player, internationally recognised environmentalist and conservationist.
Born in Johannesburg in 1927 and educated at St John’s College, he served with the South African forces in Italy in World War II and returned to South Africa at age 19 in 1946 with no idea of what he wanted to do with his life.
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. When he pioneered the Duzi Canoe Marathon in 1950 he expected to see an abundance of wildlife along the river bank. To his dismay, he saw almost none. And so began an epic journey to fight for nature conservation.
Ian brings all of these parts of himself to bear on a single mission: to assure that wilderness remains a constant reality, and a source of spiritual inspiration, prosperity and fundamental physical life on planet Earth.
His work has been recognised globally and among his numerous accolades he has been awarded Knight of the Order of the Golden Ark and the Decoration for Meritorious Service, the highest civilian decoration in this country. He is also the recipient of two honorary doctorates – Doctor of Philosophy, Honoris Causa from the University of Natal and Doctor of Laws (LLD) (h.c) from Rhodes University.