The Wilderness Leadership School was the first non profit organisation in Africa dedicated to providing a pure wilderness experience for people of all backgrounds, races and nationalities. Steeped in a rich environmental history, The Wilderness Leadership School was founded in 1957 by the legendary DrIan Player who, together with his friend and mentor Maqgubu Ntombela, recognised the necessity for people to connect with the environment. Long before ecology had become a vogue catch-word, the Wilderness Leadership School foresaw the urgent need for a large body of well-informed, conservation-oriented leaders, capable of and dedicated to the defense of our planet’s irreplaceable natural resources.
Through the stimulation of a real wilderness experience the School has sought to instill a sense of appreciation for the needs and laws of the natural environment in generations of youthful participants. That more than 40 000 trailists have experienced the awe of a trail through the pristine wilderness areas of South Africa and found the experience a life-changing one is a testament to the power of the natural environment.
Today The Wilderness Leadership School continues to provide an educational experience to thousands of South African youth and overseas visitors. Funds from public trails are used to fund community projects, community trails and training bursaries ensure that the experience is made available to our people from disadvantaged communities, thereby ensuring the sustainability of the tenets of the organisation which is to bring about awareness of the natural environment through experiential education. The concept of wilderness trails was introduced by Ian Player as a means of introducing people from all corners of the globe and from all walks of life to the life changing process brought about by walking through the wilderness on foot and experiencing the wonder of nature at first hand. Dr Player recognized that a reconnection to one’s primordial roots brings with it a sense of awe, wonder and humility that students and adults alike benefit from.
In the annals of South African conservation, the story of the Wilderness Leadership School and Dr Ian Player is a very profound one.
Its origins date back to 1955 when the American concept of wilderness was first introduced to the school's founder Dr. Ian Player by a senior game ranger Jim Feely. By 1958 half of the Imfolozi Game Reserve (now the Imfolozi-Hluhluwe Game Reserve) and a part of Lake St Lucia had wilderness areas proclaimed. These areas of wilderness allowed people to go into them only on foot, horseback or canoe.
These were the first official wilderness areas in Africa.
The Wilderness Leadership School family sends our heartfelt condolences to Ann, Kenneth, Jessica and Amyas on the passing of our most loved Ian Player.
We pay tribute to this larger than life personality who so shaped the organisation that he founded and the people- past and present - who serve in it. Every stone in the building, every book in the library, every journal written by the thousands of past trailists bear testimony to the journey that WLS has traveled alongside this giant of conservation.
As sad as we all are today, we also find joy in the things that we know would have made Ian smile as we remember his wonderful sense of humour. And we know too, that as long as we hold up the “leaf” as our beacon, we will continue working towards the vision that was Ian Player’s, over 60 years ago, for the Wilderness Leadership School
Dr. Ian Cedric Audley Player, born on 15 March 15 1927 in Johannesburg, South Africa
From 1952, Dr Ian Player was Warden of the iMfolozi Game Reserve where he spearheaded two important and far-reaching initiatives. Notably Operation Rhino, which saved the last few remaining southern white rhino from the brink of extinction. As a direct result of Ian Player’s famous white rhino relocation program, white rhinos now inhabit their former distribution range within numerous formal national parks and game reserves, private game farms, zoos and parks around the world.
Tributes to Dr Ian Player
Lee Dormer, Acting CEO Wilderness Leadership School
The Healing Spirit of this Man shall dance on Earth until all is One” ~ Lee Dormer, Acting CEO, Wilderness Leadership School
Dr Bandile Mkhize, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s chief executive spoke of the “huge, huge legacy” left by Dr. Player.
“It will not be lost on all black conservationists in this province and elsewhere that the greatness of Ian Player first found real meaning through his legendary friendship with Magqubu Ntombela, one of the most revered game rangers in South Africa. Apart from all the extraordinary achievements Dr Player recorded, it was this union with Magqubu back in the 1960’s that spoke to me of him being first and foremost a wonderful human being, someone noble, someone who defied the apartheid era through their kinship.”
“And this giant will stand tall amongst us all forever. We at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife are planning on commemorating Dr Player in a manner that from up high, he will look down and understand our great admiration for him.”
“I cannot tell you how much strength I gained from Dr Player’s endless encouragement when I called for South Africa to consider trading rhino horn as a means to help quell this poaching and also to gain vital revenue to support conservation in general. I took such strength from him. He wrote to me frequently, urging me on and never to be afraid of being the first black person in South Africa to make this appeal.”
“After I began the Ezemvelo Soccer and Netball Cup tournament as well as the establishment of our Rhino Ambassador programme amongst our communities, I remember him writing the following words: ‘Do you know Dr Mkhize that never before has conservation been as politically and social so popular amongst our people in this country’s entire conservation history. You are laying the most progressive of platforms for the future health of our natural heritage ’. I took such heart from his praise and encouragement.”
“He gave up a great deal of his life to preserve this wonderful animal. But he knew full well that its future wellbeing rested on it being seen as a commodity, too. He grasped before many others that unless we are able to sustainably exploit the financial value attached to its horn, we would, in his own words, be “repeating a failed strategy”.
Our Partners and Supporters are critical to our success and future efforts.
The Wilderness Leadership School is part of a global network of partners working for conservation and appreciation of wild areas.
For well over 55 Years, the Wilderness Leadership School has been at the forefront of conservation and especially the conservation of Wilderness Areas in South Africa, what makes our approach different and how do we make a difference for a better planet, better people and better conservation?
We Focus On People
Every conservation challenge on earth, from climate change to rhino poaching to deforestation to the plundering of our oceans is not a "real environmental problem" these are merely symptoms of a bigger problem, mans disconnect with nature. Only when man learns and accepts that we are part of the ecosystem, we need nature for our own survival and most importantly, being in touch with nature is our original state. When we reconnect with nature, we do things differently, ego, greed and apathy are no longer options. We find ourselves, our place in nature, nature is valued and protected as a inevitable result.
On trail we are guests of the natural world, we are humbled by wilderness, in awe of its complexity, power and beauty. Outside of this our egos rule” ~ Dr. Ian Player, founder of the Wilderness Leadership School
We Give People Direct Experience
For many of us, our busy urban lifestyles have led us into the false sense of belief that nature, wilderness areas, animals are something that is "out there" but not part of our day to day lives. With this constant buffer between us and the wild, man's connection with nature gradually dwindles. Wilderness Leadership School Trails provide a direct opportunity for man to reconnect with nature in the most dramatic way. Time and time again, people leave our trails with a sense of awakening, rebirth, enthusiasm and most importantly a direct experience of nature at her most primitive, an experience that makes it impossible to not appreciate the intrinsic nature of wilderness.
We Grow Leaders, Ambassadors, Change Makers
Only man can change the destructive course that mankind is on. We need leadership, we need influencers, we need to change the way we do business, politics, the way we go about our day to day business in order to lessen our footprint on the planet. Without artifice, a wilderness trail serves to connect the trailists to their natural element and this connectivity is often accompanied by a shift in consciousness that enlightens the individual to the interdependency of natural life and need to lessen ones footprint on this planet. Thousands of business leaders, future leaders, community leaders and members of the public like yourself have been on our trails, experienced nature at her most basic, connected and returned home as ambassadors for positive environmental change. We need a lot more of these leader and ambassadors.
In wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia. ~ Charles Lindbergh
We Advocate For And Protect Wilderness Areas
Wilderness Areas represent the very core of our conservation efforts, the very last few untouched remnants of nature, these are special places where we can be buffered from the impacts of our growing human population. Wilderness Areas represent the highest level of conservation, a world where nature is still in balance. These Wilderness Areas are not only critical for man's own deep, ancient spiritual needs but also serve critically important ecosystem functions, the clean air we breath, the water we drink, the things we take for granted are largely still in tact due to existing conservation efforts.
On the mountains mistakes are fatal. In politics, mistakes are wounding emotionally, but you recover. Personally, wilderness helps me get back in touch with natural rhythms, helps me reflect and, in the process, restore my creativity. ~ Mark Udall
We Nurture Future Conservationists
The Wilderness Leadership School has a plethora of projects and initiatives that focus on environmental education and creating careers in conservation. This includes our accredited Guide Train program and specialized environmental education programs focused on younger school children and community trails. Our community trails are the most exciting as it has one of the biggest positive impacts on anti rhino poaching initiatives. Community members living in close proximity to protected areas and wilderness areas are essentially fenced out and seldom have the opportunity to actually experience these areas for themselves. By reconnecting to these wild areas on their doorsteps community members rediscover the respect and awe that their ancestors once had for the wilderness. Out of this experience comes new sets of "eyes and ears" on the ground, community members actively protecting the wilderness and engaging in ecotourism activities. In many instances, tip offs from community members has been one of the most successful interventions for catching Rhino Poachers.