Ian Player in the 1960s, during an operation to save the rhinoceros. (Black Knight Archives)

Ian Player, a South African conservationist credited with bringing the white rhinoceros back from the threat of extinction and who was an early promoter of environmental awareness, including the idea of eco-tourism, died Nov. 30 at his home in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. He was 87.

His death was announced by his brother, golfer Gary Player. The cause was a stroke, according to South African news accounts.

Mr. Player was a park ranger in his native South Africa early in his career when he developed a deep attachment to the natural world and to the white rhinoceros in particular.

“I will never forget my first view of a white rhino,” he wrote in a 2011 essay for the South African publication Business Day. “I was in the Umfolozi Game Reserve in 1952. . . . It was a misty morning and I was looking into a patch of bush when two white rhino came looming out of the mist, with steam rising from their flanks and their backs. . . . Something within me was deeply touched by this primeval scene, and I had an intuitive flash that somehow my life would be bound up with these great prehistoric animals.”

The white rhinoceros — which is actually a drab gray in color — is the biggest of five species of rhino. After the elephant, it is the world’s largest land mammal, weighing as much as four tons. It has long been prized by hunters and, in recent years, by poachers who believe its horn possesses magical properties.

Ian Player (left) and Magqubu Ntombela. (Photo by Trevor Barrett)

When Mr. Player conducted an airborne survey of his South African game reserve in 1953, he counted 437 white rhinos. Thousands lived in central Africa at the time, but that population has been wiped out.

Mr. Player set about finding ways to increase the rhino’s chances of survival. He led efforts to move groups of the them to other locations, including South Africa’s sprawling Kruger National Park, in order to increase its long-term chances of survival.

He launched Operation Rhino in the 1960s, traveling around the world to heighten public awareness of the plight of the rhino and African wildlife in general. He was the technical adviser on the 1964 Hollywood movie “Rhino!” He published a book, “The White Rhino Saga ,” in 1972 and worked with documentary filmmakers to draw attention to the animals.

“Conservation is not a plaything, or a luxury, or something new,” Mr. Player told Sports Illustrated in 1972. “It is survival. Before we can develop an ecological conscience about the world in which we live . . . we must be able to see a strip of land that has not been maltreated by man. We must experience wilderness.”

Mr. Player organized efforts to establish breeding colonies in zoos and parks outside Africa, including the San Diego Zoo. Once, while trying to immobilize a rhino, Mr. Player was accidentally squirted with a tranquilizer drug, causing him to lose much of the sight in his right eye.

For years, Mr. Player faced widespread hostility in his homeland from farmers, hunters, commercial interests and others who thought he was standing in the way of progress.

But he foresaw the economic value of preserving nature and became an early advocate of what is now called eco-tourism. Instead of hunting parties, Mr. Player helped organize outings in which visitors could witness wildlife roaming free in their natural habitat.

The World Wildlife Fund once called Mr. Player the “savior” of the white rhino, whose numbers have grown in recent years to an estimated 20,000.

Ian Cedric Audley Player was born March 15, 1927, in Johannesburg. His father sold gold-mining equipment.

Mr. Player was interested in physical fitness in his youth. Gary Player, who won the Masters and British Open tournaments three times each, told Sports Illustrated that his older brother fashioned his first golf club from a tree branch and taught him the rudiments of the sport.

Mr. Player left school at 16 to serve in the South African army during World War II and saw combat alongside U.S. forces in Italy.

Returning to his homeland, he was a fisherman and gold miner before organizing a 75-mile canoe race in 1951. He won the six-day race three times. It was during the first of those races, when he went through rapids and other obstacles and was bitten by poisonous snakes, that Mr. Player determined to spend his life in nature.

He also was a follower of the practice of dream interpretation and was a founder of a South African society devoted to the study of the ideas of psychotherapist Carl Jung.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Anne Farrer Player; three children; his brother; and a sister.

Mr. Player was the author of three books and, from 1976 to 1993, wrote a column on the outdoors for a South African newspaper. He lectured around the world and established a school to train young people about nature and wildlife. In the 1970s, he was a founder of the World Wilderness Congress, an international forum that brings together scientists, financiers and environmental activists.

He also stood out for his outspoken support of black culture in South Africa, and his closest friend was a Zulu park ranger named Magqubu Ntombela, who taught Mr. Player how to track animals in the bush.

“The wilderness has no perception of race,” Mr. Player told The Washington Post in 1984. “That is where the inner change can take place.”