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 65 000 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 first group of schoolboys (from St John's College) to be taken on a wilderness trail dates back to 1957 at Lake St Lucia. While the school was only formalised as such in 1963, trails of young people were being taken out in the late 1950's by game rangers in both reserves. This was the time that Dr. Player came into contact with Magqubu Ntombela, an extraordinary game tracker for the then Natal Parks Board. He was to prove to be one of the greatest influences on Dr. Player's life and one of the foremost sponsors of the Wilderness Leadership School idea. 
In 1959 Dr. Player and Magqubu Ntombela took the first official Natal Parks Board trail,  into the Imfolozi wilderness area. A trail is a unique experience to experience wild areas on foot, areas where man has not left an impact, no roads, no facilities, just wilderness.  It was the beginning of something very special. 
Apart from all else the hike was being traversed over particularly historical ground. The area between the White and Black Imfolozi rivers was an area that had been occupied by the famous Zulu King Shaka, who undertook controlled hunting in this very area back in the 1860's. 
In other words this Imfolozi wilderness area lay at the heart of the early Zulu Kingdom.
In fact Magqubu Ntombela's grandfather had been one of King Shaka's indunas (a chief) and Magqubu carried with him the oral history of the time, perpetuating the venerable Zulu ritual of vivid storytelling. Enshrined in tribal tales were also the old conservation practices of the Zulus, vital for an understanding of the culture and the land. 
And the significance of Imfolozi was enhanced even further as one of the greatest scenes of global conservation history when a collection of select game rangers saved the White Rhino from extinction. It was right here that white rhino numbers had plummeted to such a degree that unless they were captured and relocated it was conceivably they would have been wiped out. 
And so when one talks about the origins of the Wilderness Leadership School one situates it amongst these crucial events. 
Hundreds of people and many local and international bodies have since been involved in the growth of the school. But it was the friendship of these two men, Dr. Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela and all that they stood for that infused the school with its significance and helped unfold the enduring lessons that the wilderness has on people.
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

Ian Player is globally recognised as a pioneer, a visionary and an activist who has profoundly influenced conservation, changing the lives of countless people. From his activism in the case of the successful campaign against dune mining in St Lucia 
(iSimangaliso) to today when he still campaigns (rages) against the encroachment of mining into wilderness areas in the case of the Fuleni Mine at Hlabisa and other issues dear to his heart; at the forefront of which being the fight for Rhino
View the series of interviews with the late Dr Ian Player on the Journey Within here
He successfully campaigned for the proclamation and conservation of wilderness areas and has ensured that through the activities of his founding organisation, the Wilderness Leadership School, these wild and primitive areas are protected through the trail activity and breed of ambassadors of this organisation. 
His friendship and mutual spiritualism with his dear colleague Magqubu Ntombela forms the kernel of his conservation persona and the nub of many of the stories that he so delights in telling. A passionate public speaker, Ian Player, regales audiences across the globe with vivid stories of his time with Magqubu and tales of the African bush. Testament to his compelling speaking is the fact that one can hear a pin drop in even the vastest auditorium. And tears are often glimpsed in even the hardiest eye.   
Having initiated the Pietermaritzburg to Durban Canoe Marathon (Dusi), Ian Player went on to win the race three times. His exploits in this area are well documented in his book Men Rivers and Canoes. 
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.  
The second initiative was Ian Player’s recognition of the value of wilderness for the human spirit and for biodiversity conservation.  This led to the designation of the iMfolozi and St. Lucia Wilderness Areas in the late 1950s.  These were the first wilderness areas to be zoned in South Africa and on the African continent.
Dr Player resigned from the Natal Parks Board (NPB) in 1974, to focus his energies on the wilderness movement.  His continued conservation work within the NGO sector, leadto one of his most notable achievements - the founding of the globally recognised Wilderness Leadership School (WLS). The WLS has been the nucleus from which many other collaborative organisations have emerged, including the longest running international environmental conference – the World Wilderness Congress held every four years in various countries throughout the world.
Ian Player is also the founding member of Wilderness Foundation South Africa, Wilderness Foundation UK, Wilder Foundation USA (WILD and the Magqubu Ntombela  Foundation. 

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.”
He asked all people to read Dr Player’s book ‘Zululand Wilderness: Shadow and Soul’ to appreciate the significance of this friendship, one that immortalised Magqubu as well as the value they both placed on the spirituality that wilderness offers humankind.  
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife named its principal annual award, the Magqubu Ntombela Award for Bravery, in commemoration of this partnership.
Dr Mkhize said everyone, not just conservationists, should grasp that a “giant amongst human beings” had passed on.
“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.” 
So much of his and his organisation’s efforts to help protect the Rhino were inspired by Dr Player’s relentless support and encouragement.
“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.”
This encouragement also applied, he said, in his quest to popularise conservation amongst rural communities.
“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.”
However much certain people understood Dr Player as being the “psychology” of wilderness, Dr Mkhize said he was a fiercely pragmatic and intelligent thinker.
“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. 

The Human Elephant Foundation

The Human Elephant Foundation is a visionary and collaborative organisation that initiates, co-ordinates and facilitates discussion and innovative problem solving to create a better, respectful and sustainable world.


At the Foundation for Natural Leadership, we believe that the 21st century needs a new form of leadership. The way in which our society and private sector use the Earth’s limited resources has proved unsustainable.
Under pressure from countless new developments in society and technology, as individuals and employees we have drifted further and further from the key to our existence: living together with each other and with nature. Furthermore, most of the potential we possess as human beings remains untapped. This creates incredible opportunities!
An increasing number of conscious and influential people are wondering how to address the new issues of our times. FNL’s Wilderness Leadership programmes are devoted to developing leadership qualities that can help them find answers. Each programme focuses on four inextricably linked domains. The Personal, Private, Professional and Public domains: the four Ps.

The Wild Foundation (USA): 

Works to protect and sustain critical wild areas, wilderness values and endangered wildlife throughout the world with special emphasis on Southern Africa, by initiating or assisting environmental education, experiential and "hands on" projects and programmes. 
The Wild Foundation also convenes the World Wilderness Congress. 

The Wilderness Foundation, UK: 

The Wilderness Foundation (UK) is one of WILD’s sister organizations, founded by Dr. Ian Player and Sir Laurens van der Post in 1974.

An established and successful organization located in the United Kingdom, The Wilderness Foundation UK works to preserve the world’s last remaining wild places and highlight their impact on the health of the individual, society and the planet.

The Wilderness Foundation, SA: 

The Wilderness Foundation is a project-driven conservation and leadership organisation that encourages, plans and projects wild lands and wildness, uplifts the knowledge and lives of our citizens and stimulates an environmental ethos among current and future leaders. We strive for ecosystems and wilderness areas that are valued and effectively protected for benefit of all species.

The Magqubu Ntombela Foundation

It is the belief of the Magqubu Ntombela Memorial Foundation that the preservation of traditional knowledge, history and culture has become absolutely vital in Southern Africa if we are to prosper as a winning nation and respect the diversity of people and culture.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife 

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is the provincial agency mandated to carry out biodiversity conservation and associated activities in the provinceof KwaZulu-Natal

North West Parks & Tourism

The North West Parks and Tourism Board is committed to the upliftment of the quality of life in the North West Province through the conserving of wild plants, animals and landscapes for the benefit of the people.

Pilansberg Trust 

The Pilanesberg Wildlife Trust (PWT) was established in 1999 to provide a medium through which contributions can be made to further conservation and social upliftment. The PWT is a non-profit organisation and is registered with the South African Institute of Fundraising


Andries Botha Foundation


Ewing Trust

Save Our Wilderness

The Save Our iMfolozi Wilderness (SOiW”) campaign was launched on 1 May 2014. It is a project of the Global Environmental Trust (GET) opposed to Ibutho Coal’s application for an open cast mine that threatens the world famous iMfolozi wilderness area, a sanctuary for the greatest concentration of rhino in the world. The mine also threatens the health of neighbouring rural communities.

Purely Wild Foundation

Purely Wild wilderness encounters provides a living space where you have an opportunity to encounter, confront and transcend the limits that restrict your sense of well-being.


The Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) provides educational opportunities to promote the conservation and rehabilitation of the cultural and natural heritage of Southern Africa


Raimondo Family Trust

Chile Vertical 

Chile Vertical, a company founded more than 16 years ago by Chilean professionals that conquered the summit of Mount Everest, who realized that the success of team work was based on technical skills, but most of all on personal and interpersonal skills

Gaia Foundation UK

The Gaia Foundation is passionate about regenerating cultural and biological diversity, and restoring a respectful relationship with the Earth.


Mary Stainbank Trust

Project Rhino KZN

Project Rhino KZN was launched on World Rhino Day, 22 September 2011. It is a province-wide rhino-focussed association that brings together a provincial government conservation body, private and community-owned reserves, rhino owners, leading conservation NGOs and anti-poaching security specialists.

President's Award 

The President's aims to empower young people between the ages of 14 and 25, by providing a balanced, non-competitive framework for self-development that will increase their self-esteem and enhance their capacity to achieve in whatever context they find themselves: enabling them to become responsible active citizens within their communities.


Rhino Tears

Rhino Tears wine is available for purchase in major retailers around the country, including Pick n Pay, Makro, Tops, Spar, Fruit and Veg City and major independent retailers.


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.

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