“Back in 1952, I earned 20 pounds a month as a game ranger. So instead of buying cigarettes, I bought books.” These words come from a man who will go down in global conservation history for ever.
“Back in 1952, I earned 20 pounds a month as a game ranger. So instead of buying cigarettes, I bought books.” These words come from a man who will go down in global conservation history for ever. Dr Ian Player, who established The Wilderness Foundation and is an internationally famous conservationist, recently paid a visit to the Eastern Cape for a groundbreaking event – the handing over of his much-loved personal library.
This is all due to the vision of an extremely special South African businessman, Vincent Mai. Mai, now based in New York, sits on the boards of the International Center for Transitional Justice and the Juilliard School in New York, among his other involvements.
Along with his wife, Anne, Mai has set his philanthropic sights on his home province of the Eastern Cape. In 2009, they purchased a large area of farmland, 50km outside Somerset East and near the small town of Pearston. There, nestled among the hills of the Karoo, the Plains of Camdeboo Private Nature Reserve was born.
“The reserve is a work in progress, we want to restore it to how it was before any humans settled,” remarked Mai. So began the partnership between the Wilderness Foundation and the Vincent Mai-Family Foundation. The final outcome will be a reserve devoid of human impact and a valuable tool in spreading the word of conservation and the magic of the bush.
The opening took place last week Friday at the reserve's lodge. In front of a small crowd, Player, Mai and Wilderness Foundation Director Andrew Muir each gave their view on the impact such a project would have.
“Ian is the conscience of South Africa and a gift to the world. He lovingly collected these books, it's a reflection of his life and in the hands of the right people they will make help better the world for future generations,” said Mai. “It will be the ultimate honour and privilege to be the custodian of his library.”
Notes of nostalgia could be heard in Player's voice as he recounted some memorable stories about his collection.
“Alan Paton's second wife didn't like him drinking whiskey,” lamented Player, “But he would still sneak round to my house for a drink. The biography Peter Alexander wrote about Alan is probably one of my favourite books here.”
Besides this, Player noted how he was “delighted when Mai offered to take his library. It is rather like parting with a child, but I know the books are in a safe place.”
During his address, Muir highlighted the courage and foresight that the Mais had shown with their undertaking of the project.
“Conservation efforts in South Africa are hard to accomplish,” Muir said. “It is very rare to find people of the calibre of the Mais. People like Vincent spur us all to do more, not only with the restoration of the land but by the fact that he's not keeping it in isolation. He is involving the community at large and creating a wholly transformative experience.
Not many people in Africa understand that this is the future of conservation in Africa.”