By Midori Paxton
Ben Beytell, the former Director of Parks and Wildlife in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), was always a welcome figure in my six-year working life at the Ministry. He would arrive on time each morning (unless he was trying to rescue a lost hiker in the Fish River Canyon or was relocating roan antelope). He always carried his trademark briefcase with him, an old-fashioned thing, bulging with papers.
After a click of a button or two, the briefcase would be open, and work would begin. The day’s papers – memos, recently received letters, documents – and his pipe would emerge and Ben would head off to run through them with colleagues over coffee and his pipe.
Sherlock Holmes did his best thinking while smoking a pipe, and so did Ben. Sherlock’s colleague Dr Watson frequently gagged and half suffocated in a pipe-smoke-clogged room, and so did we. But Holmes always got the job done. So did Ben. Holmes and his pipe found the most complex complications ‘elementary, my dear Watson’. Ben found them slightly more complicated. But that’s conservation in Namibia.
We all loved him.
He wasn’t so much a force of nature as a force for nature.
Pipe at the ready, a flask of something warming usually close to hand, he was bulldoggish, genial, tenacious and determined to see the right man, woman (or gemsbok) win. His doors were always open. As a result we kept bothering him. Tens of times a day! He bore this deluge of “What shall I do?”, “What should I write?”, “How can I approach this matter?” with fortitude.
Ben wrote a column for the SPAN project’s magazine, Sandpaper. It punched in on page one just after the editorial and the carrying photos were of Ben (looking Ben-ish and bull-doggish), which I had taken, with his brown leather briefcase – old, hard-worked, secure, scratched and enduring.
The concept of the column was simple – From Ben’s Briefcase. He’d pull something out and write about it.
I know that he enjoyed writing it. I would get a hand-written draft out of his old briefcase – I can well imagine him writing his accounts over a weekend – usually just after the deadline, after my nagging and nudging, perhaps in his garden with his pipe in his mouth, while muttering, “That Midori is always on my case…”
“What Shall I Do?” and “Deadlines” were on his face every day in the office. He’d seen it all before, and consistently remained calm, sorting things out.
But enough of office gossip! Let’s have a peek in the briefcase.
“This past week, my time was once again occupied by problem animals reports. These included two lionesses with cubs near Tsumeb, two bull elephants causing havoc near Kalkveld (where elephants had been absent for the last 40 years) and mice in an important government building.”
Beautiful. Ben moves from lions and marauding elephants to mice in one deft opening of his briefcase.
Let’s take another peek. This time Ben is with a pack of wild dogs while ‘developing game water’ (MET-speak for sorting out a waterhole), and he’s with his comrade, Xishwe, and a gemsbok massacre.
“Xishwe drew my attention to something far ahead in the road. I could only discern black specks darting to and fro, but he immediately identified them as bellie honne… I decided to wait and reached for my pipe.”
Classic Ben. No rushing in. No disturbance. Clean observation and poor old Xishwe sharing his second hand-pipe smoke while the wild dogs force the gemsbok into a defensive position in a black thorn bush, and then sneakily “…crawl and worm their way through and grab him on the hindquarters, perhaps reaching for the soft parts of the groin, which they often target.”
A bad end for the gemsbok, I’m afraid.
I think we all felt that Ben was a father of SPAN, involved from the day we met at Midgard in 2003 with the then MET Permanent Secretary and MET directors and UNDP.
“I looked down at his bare skull,” wrote Ben. “One lifeless eye stared at me, clouded with the film of death. But I could discern the fierce, proud look of defiance in the eye of the aristocrat of the desert who had just fought (and lost) his last battle.”
I ask you, how many office bosses bring this kind of story to work? I think we all looked forward to what would emerge next from that briefcase of his. A lot of it had the feeling of campfire chat and chewing over past triumphs and fiascos. Believe me. There were plenty of both.
Ben was inspired to enter the challenging world of conservation by the writing of PJ Schoeman, a thoroughbred rough and tough German-born South African conservationist, award-winning author and ethnologist.
Conservation diploma achieved, Ben was sent north to ‘start a game park’ in Caprivi. The instructions were explicit. How to do it was entirely up to him.
Said Ben in an interview for Sandpaper, “When I was sent to Tsumkwe in 1977, there were no real parks in the north-east. Although West Caprivi Game Park existed, it was occupied by the army. It was important to protect the Tree and Shrub Savannah Biome, portions of our permanent rivers and associated habitats, along with the rare and valuable species found there – roan and sable antelope, buffalo, hippo and other wetland species.”
Important, yes. But when he arrived in Mahango – the park he wanted to proclaim – in 1977, he could only find one old sable bull with a broken horn, 35 elephant, 25 blue wildebeest, 12 reedbuck, seven kudu, five warthog and a few lechwe. A rather pitiful and heavily poached population. And not everybody shared Ben’s enthusiasm for exploration.
“We had heard that about six rhino had been seen, but when we approached the army commander for permission to enter the area, he said he would not allow snotkop bokwagters, as we had no security clearance and would reveal confidential stuff.”
After this exchange, a hippo that Ben was trying to save tried to kill him, but as always, Ben dug his heels in and his perseverance and patience paid off.
As Linda Baker, the former SPAN Communication Officer, notes: “Ben laid the foundations for some of Namibia’s most notable and species-rich conservation areas… the Mahango, which would later be incorporated into the Bwabwata National Park, and the Khaudum, Mamili and Mudumu national parks.”
These parks have opened up the north to tourism, providing gainful employment and adding significant stamps to Namibia’s ecological passport. The permit to one of them – Khaudum – would read: “Wildest place in Africa, two vehicles advised and don’t annoy a herd of two thousand elephants!” These days there are hundreds of hippos where Ben found only one when he first arrived in the surroundings.
While Ben was an animal person and a wilderness person, people were always in his mind. He worked to create conservancies that benefited local communities, tutored diploma students at the MET (affirmed by Linda as follows: “During this period many of the country’s shining conservation stars were mentored by Ben.”) and slowly but surely rose through the MET ranks.
When, after a working life of 35 years, he finally retired, Sandpaper asked for his wish list:
BEN’S WISH LIST
I like that! “Today’s a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.”
I think we all felt that Ben was a father of SPAN, involved from the day we met at Midgard in 2003 with the then MET Permanent Secretary and MET directors and UNDP. It was an exciting meeting, full of energy. We mapped out threats to Namibia’s parks and the barriers that prevented the MET from unlocking the potential of the park to safeguard biodiversity and contribute to national and local development. Not just empty talk. Things happened. It was lovely to see.
“We will never really appreciate the contributions and sacrifices towards conservation that different role players have made, and I am at a loss to sing their praises, but they know what they have done. All I can do is to wish that their colleagues remember them by nominating them for the Staff Field Awards in recognition of their remarkable and unselfish achievements.”
Ben, on retirement was given an armchair (among other things). The idea, I suppose, was that he should sit down in it and watch the world go by, as opposed to waking up in a tent and shaking scorpions out of his boots. Knowing Ben he’d have hopped into his armchair, dozed merrily for a bit and then would have started looking for his boots again. Indeed, life for Ben Beytell was never complete without a few scorpions in his boots.
Ben was a gift for Namibia. He was a true father of the national parks in the country and he will continue to live in the heart of Namibia’s wilderness and magnificent parks. Sadly he passed away a few months ago, not long after his retirement. He will be greatly missed.
This story was originally published in the Conservation and the Environment in Namibia 2013 magazine.