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Hearts change in South African wilderness

TO Ian Player, the greatest leveler on earth is an angry black rhinoceros. ``When you're out on the trail and you see one of those fellows coming, you count on the help of everyone around you - regardless of race or creed.''

Dr. Player ought to know. The internationally known conservationist has been leading multiracial groups into the South African wilderness for 30 years.

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His Wilderness Leadership School, a nonprofit educational organization, brings together small groups of teen-agers and adults from all over the world, with a special emphasis on uniting South Africans.

The activity - a cross between Outward Bound and an encounter group - challenges the assumptions that underlie that nation's policy of apartheid, which calls for strict racial separation.

``My country is well known for its policies, which have brought an immense amount of grief,'' Player says. ``But I believe that the wilderness is one way of healing that.''

In the bush, he says, barriers between people vanish, sometimes within minutes.

Michael Sweatman, an international banker who serves on the school's board of trustees, says the conservationist has an unusual ability to open communication between people.

``He's had blacks, Indians, and whites around a campfire who would never get around a table in a city or town,'' Mr. Sweatman says.

Player was in the United States last month for an international conference on the values of wilderness. He muses that his is an undertaking that began small - and stayed that way.

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Player, whose brother Gary Player is the well-known South African golfer, began his career as a wildlife management officer in South Africa's Natal Province in the early 1950s. He eventually went to work in the game reserves of Zululand. It was during this time that he spearheaded work that helped save the rare white rhinoceros from extinction.

But a turning point, he says, came in 1957 - when he asked permission to take a group of high school students on a camping trip inside a South African game reserve.

Officials approved, but told him he would need three buses, one for each race represented in the group. He eventually took the trip, but used only one bus.

Thus began a lifelong quest to chip away at the barriers in South African society.

Player has taken black tribal leaders into the bush together with white South African officials, including the current ambassador to the US, Peter Koornhof.

He targets individuals who he expects will play leadership roles in the future.

While those who can afford to pay for the trip are expected to do so, others are aided in covering the costs. Still, most of the school's $100,000 annual budget comes from private donations.

Player is absolutely dedicated to the cause of wilderness. And although the goals of racial harmony and conservation seem unrelated, he insists that there is a close link.

``The dynamics that take place on the trail are fascinating, because within a very short space of time, racial prejudices break down and people simply become people.''

What makes the bush different? The natural beauty of the wilderness, Player says, ``reawakens'' the humanity sometimes deeply buried in modern man.

The trails are designed to encourage this. Hikers share chores and responsibilities, such as taking turns on ``night watch'' - stoking the fire and listening for wild animals.

``Night watches are extremely important,'' Player says, ``because they give people a chance to be alone.'' Also, the person on guard is responsible for the safety of the whole group.

This feeling of shared responsibility, he adds, builds trust between individuals.

Of course, there's always room for healthy disagreements.

Player recalls one campfire discussion by a group of religious leaders - Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. The debate was heated, to say the least.

``But at the end of it,'' he says, ``they all acknowledged, as happens on every trail, that there is only one God. That was something they could all agree on.''

At the end of each outing, the hikers gather around a fire to discuss the experience.

Player says it was tiny meetings such as this one that inspired him to organize the first World Wilderness Congress in 1977.

Three others have been held since then. These meetings bring together conservationists from around the world to discuss issues involving wilderness preservation.

Many ideas Player developed on the trail have been transferred to these meetings.

For example, for the 1977 conference in Johannesburg, he invited a lively mix of tribal leaders, government officials, conservationists, and scientists.

``But when I put out the concept among my scientific friends, they thought I'd gone mad,'' he says. ``They couldn't understand what tribal people could possibly teach them.''

Player calls himself a ``citizen of the world.'' Still, he hasn't been able to avoid the unique problems caused by his South African origins.

Some consider him an unofficial spokesman for the South African government. He says he loves his country but draws a sharp distinction between the people and the government, which he opposes.

Sitting on a porch in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, Player seems hesitant to talk about the future of his troubled country.

The most important thing, he says, is that the lessons of the wilderness stick with the people he's taken into the bush.

``In the end, that's the most important thing. You can do away with the laws, you can do away with everything. But you've got to get to the hearts of the people. And it's in the wilderness that I've found the hearts of people change.''

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