Friday, 19 June 2015

A tribute to Matui - the legendary Chris Eyre

I heard that Chris Eyre had seen his last sunset, and knew the end had come.

Chris Eyre on the night he recieved the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism's Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo: Tony Figueira

When I was a young ranger in the late 1980s, I had heard tales of this extraordinary man. Of how he had drawers full of unclaimed S and T (subsistance and travel) cheques. Of how guests were treated to tea - water boiled in an unwashed sausage pan, with a lump of jam added when the sugar ran out.

But mostly, I heard stories about the terrible rhino and elephant poaching, and how Chris and a handful of people were fighting the scourge. Not with bullets, but by sitting down with the farmers, communities and leaders who belonged on the land, listening and talking. This was unheard of at the time, and  a disapproving  Department of Nature Conservation Head Office banished him to far-off Keetmanshoop.

Chris Eyre and staff in the mid-80s, when tensions ran high during poaching investigations. Photo: Mitch Reardon, the Besieged Desert 

I heard too, that he said: “The day they allow women in the Ministry (of Environment and Tourism) is the day we should close it down. That will be the end.”

Fires, tea and dogs

I don’t remember when I first met him. But over the years, I came to look past Chris’s outwardly rugged appearance; his sometimes abrupt manner.  I found that inside was a great man, where honour, integrity, respect and a deep love for nature lived. A man who learnt life’s lessons through listening, watching and understanding. Through gazing into a fire, deep in thought, armed with a cup of tea, his pipe and his dogs. He didn’t need more.

No-frills campsite during the 1980s - Chris Eyre (right) with  Mitch Reardon, Elias Hambo, Johan le Roux, Fergie the dog and Garth Owen-Smith. Photo: from The Besieged Desert

And I found, a deep love for this man and all he stood for. A love I am sure those who met him share, one that observes his purity of intentions and spirit.

One day, he rang me from Ondangwa. “Linda”, he said. He always spoke loudly, and often twice. “Linda, I have to tell you. I have six posts for information officers. And you know, I am going to put women in all of them.” And he did.

Many years later, I reminded him of his early statements the impending doom of allowing women in the MET. He smoked his pipe thoughtfully, then grinned his toothy grin and chuckled. “I did say that. Yes, I did say that.”

I don't know what changed his mind. But, I think that, in true Chris style, he looked for what was needed, and cast aside any preconceived ideas he may have formed.  

The Last Sunsets

Chris at the Gift to the Earth Ceremony 1998.
I hope, in his final days, while watching his last sunsets, his heart rested easily. Knowing that he had left behind a great legacy, one in which people talk through their differences, united through a common love of the land, its creatures and its future.

I hope he remembered the solid foundations he laid through those long meetings, of how he bridged the rift between farmers and the officials through trust and respect.

I hope he reflected on the many people he had met and the lives he touched. How he nurtured young conservationists who are today among our great leaders. How he planted within all of us who met him, the seed of hope, respect for each other and caring.

And I hope, as he watched his final sunset, he knew that we will not forget him or his sacrifices. But that in each of us, his legacy will endure.

Life's true riches

If I have learnt a lesson from Chris, it is this:

Reward is not in riches, possessions and status. It is in the quiet satisfaction that our lives are in harmony - with nature, with others and with ourselves. Chris was one of those rare people who lived this. He was, perhaps, the richest of us all.

I salute you, Matui*. Go well on your journey. Goodbye. 

*Matui is the affectionate name given to him by the ovaHimba. It refers to his large ears.

Chris receives the MET's Lifetime Achievement Award from Hon Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah in 2008. Photo: Tony Figueira
Here's the citation I wrote for Chris for the MET Awards. I spent weeks digging around in the old brown files, tracking down his details, and checking them with his old friends, Piet Mostert, Garth Owen-Smith and Ben Beytell:

MET Lifetime Achievement Award 2008

Winner Chris Eyre, retired Control Warden, Ondangwa
Nominated by: Evarista Nghilai, Ongwediva
Written by Linda Baker

The legendary Chris Eyre has dedicated his life to conservation, first to the Department of Nature Conservation (DoNC) and later to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and still continues with conservation work after retirement. While campfire stories of Chris Eyre’s hard work, dedication - and idiosyncrasies - abound, all agree that he is a leading figure in Namibia’s conservation history books.

Eyre joined the DoNC in 1971 in Etosha National Park. He worked at the von Bach Dam, at Ganab in the Namib-Naukluft Park and at Otjovasandu in Etosha National Park before being appointed as a Principal Nature Conservator at Khorixas in November 1980. 

Devastating drought, poaching

He worked in the north west of the country during a time when poaching was rife, a devastating drought led to a crash in wildlife populations and the desert rhino was close to extinction. At this time he worked closely along with Lucas Mbomporo (DoNC) and long time friend Garth Owen-Smith [now of Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC)]. Together they contained poaching by working closely with traditional leaders and pioneered the community game guard system.

Uukwaluudhi Conservancy
In April 1984 he was transferred to Keetmanshoop and in September 1986 he moved to Opuwo, where he continued to work closely with local communities. In December 1992 he was promoted to Chief Conservation Officer (Chief Warden) in Ondangwa after receiving an outstanding achievement bonus. During this time he worked on the establishment of the Uukwaluudhi Conservancy – work that involved the establishment of a fenced core wildlife area. The Conservancy was gazetted in 2003. He was acknowledged for his work by becoming a joint winner of the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF) - Go Green Environmental Award with King Josea Taapopi in 2004.
He was transferred to Namutoni in Etosha National Park in 1995 and retired from the MET in August 2003. He has since worked for WWF and IRDNC – in the field, of course.

Veld knowledge - from a butterfly to an elephant

Director of Parks and Wildlife Management, Ben Beytell, says of Eyre: ”He has the ability to get along with anyone and is extremely resourceful. He also has tremendous knowledge of the veld and knows about everything from a butterfly to an elephant.”
Eyre, affectionately known to the Himba as Matui (referring to his large ears) always has a pipe in hand and a terrier at his side.

Donkeys, cement mixers and make-shift pipes

Writes Mitch Reardon in ‘The Besieged Desert’: “Chris is highly respected for his bushcraft and skilled in maintaining a very effective operation in utterly isolated wild places. At a previous station in the desolate central Namib [Ganab] he had learnt to make do. In lieu of a washing machine he had laundered his clothes in a cement mixer. In an emergency a cheap ball point pen with the filler removed substituted for a broken pipe stem. His only companion was a donkey that shared his two roomed cottage at night. 

"But his idiosyncrasies are only amusing asides to an otherwise hard-working, inventive and wholly dedicated personality who pours everything he has into wildlife conservation. Wherever necessary, which is more often than not, he works himself and his team long hours, seven days a week, contemptuous of the nine-to-five mentality that is creeping in as game management becomes bureaucratized.”

Although written more than 20 years ago, these words paint a picture of the man who is the winner of this year’s MET Lifetime Achievement Award.