Growing up brought with it a certain disappointment for me. Perhaps because, as a child, I always believed that the hero wins, that the good guy comes through in the end. And even if he dies it’s always for a greater good. After all, isn’t that how all great adventure stories end? Frodo destroys the ring, Tarzan rescues Jane and David defeats Golliath…
Operation Rhino in the 1970s was one such adventure story, led by a small team of die-hard men who refused to accept defeat. It was due to their tireless work translocating rhinos that new populations could be established and that the white rhino was brought back from the brink of extinction. In the 1960s there were an estimated 650 white rhinos in Africa; by 2010 the population numbered 18 800. The very man in front of me initiated and led this operation along with his right-hand man, Magquba Ntombela. It is because of Dr Ian Player that there are still rhinos around for us to save.
But life is not fair, despite some inborn conviction that it should be. Once again we face despair with the grave reality that, despite various efforts, we may lose our precious rhinos – our prehistoric dinosaur friends that should be able to share the earth peacefully with us. At the age of 85 Dr Player is watching his life unravel, his life purpose shredded to bits, not unlike the horns of his beloved rhinos.
I catch myself following the furrowed lines on his face, but always returning to his eyes. As he speaks, they burn likes coals. If only I could write down his every thought and freeze his deep, wearily passionate expressions. It’s only two minutes into the interview and I am in awe of this man. As he pauses between words, I see him drift off to another place and wish he could take me with him. I sense both comfort and pain in his contemplations. Is he remembering the past? A time, perhaps, when hard work paid off against the greatest odds? When the monster of human greed could still be overcome with a benevolent heart and a passionate will? And can we still save our rhinos or is the poaching too great for us this time?
‘Could there be an Operation Rhino two?’
‘It is a different world now, it is a different world …’ Again, a deep thoughtful silence overcomes him.
‘You see, what is happening to the rhino is symptomatic of the environment as a whole and I have a deep sense of a crunch approaching now. The Greeks have a name for the earth, Gaia, which means mother. I think Mama is getting a bit tired of us now and she will make us all listen. I mean, what is it that makes us so destructive? It’s quite terrifying; the amount of sewage that’s going into rivers and dams, the acid water that is rising from old mines in Gauteng and other parts of the country… There are rainforests being cut down to plant crops, and there are species in those rainforests – not only birds, animals and insects but also trees – that could be of enormous benefit to humanity. It’s a very lamentable story and we are the ones writing it.’ And the tragedy of our species is that we don’t pay enough attention to what happened in the past. If we did, we certainly wouldn’t have gone to war. During World War I 40 million people were killed and 60 thousand men were wounded on one day. It still hovers over us like a spectre. Only 20 years later and then there was World War II … history was staring at us in the face and we didn’t pay any attention! History should be our teacher and that’s the same with the environment.’
Dr Player is a hero, strong and dignified, and yet he is just a man. As we chat, I suddenly get the urge to hug and comfort him, but we have only just met and I decide it would be inappropriate. I search for relief in a more uplifting topic.
‘What does the word “Wilderness” mean to you, Dr Player?’
‘Wilderness is for me salvation. I started the Wilderness Leadership School and we’ve now had 60, 000 to-70, thousand people who have gone into the wilderness and come out deeply moved. You are not human if you aren’t changed by the wilderness. It is because of this fact that I have fought for wilderness areas as opposed to just National Parks. In a wilderness area you can’t go in by motorcar. You go on foot, on a horse or in a canoe. There’s a big difference between a canoe and a motorboat. In a canoe you can hear everything … and our psyche resonates with it. People suddenly realize that these places are different, they are the New Temples – you go back into an archetypal world, a world where we once lived in what is commonly called The Garden of Eden and that world is still within us. Just as CG Jung the psychiatrist said, “We don’t come into the world a clean slate, we come in with a million years of evolution.” And that is why dreams are so important. Not daydreams but dreams of the night. They are a constant guide to us and you will find that even in the most remote parts of the world people dream of African animals, because this continent is where we all came from originally.’
I am deciding whether to ask him about his own dreams, perhaps the question is too personal. But curiosity gets the better of me.
‘Do you ever dream of rhinos?’
‘Yes I do. In fact quite recently I had two dreams: one of a young rhino climbing up and lying on the bed next to me, and another that had it’s horn and jaw chopped off – it was ghastly, it kept coming towards me and I tried to chase it away but it refused to go. And I know what the dream was saying – I’m 84 now, I’m very tired of fighting and I’m tired of making enemies. In order to do these things you do make enemies, often people who don’t understand what one is trying to do. Somebody else has got to do it, somebody else has got to fight all this stuff now. But the dream was saying that I can’t give up.’
‘So you think about rhinos a lot?’
‘During Operation Rhino when we were darting and relocating we got very close to the rhino. On one particular occasion a dart burst and hit me in the eye. I lost my sight in that eye, so I am conscious of the rhinos every moment of the day.’
I think of Dr Player in the hazy black and white photos that I have seen in books, standing beside one of his beloved rhinos, his trousers rolled up and worn, his arms strong and his eyes determined and alive as they are now, yet without the faraway look. As he gets to his feet, he wobbles unsteadily and I joke that it is all the rhino capturing…
There is no doubt that I am standing before a hero, a true rich-spirited man of the wilderness. Dr Player I salute you. You have shown us that the impossible is possible. It may be a different world, but we will not give up fighting for the survival of the rhino. We will carry on your legacy.