It may be a an old and hackneyed phrase, but the description “a gentleman and a scholar” perfectly fits Dr Roy Bengis, the chief state veterinarian at Skukuza. Roy has worked at Skukuza since 1978, and although he is not employed by Sanparks, he has played a major role in many of the park’s major animal health issues over the years.
Through his hard work, the road was paved for elephant, rhino and hippo to be translocated out of the park, and he played a role in allowing the concept of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park to come to fruition. He also played a major role in the development of the Sanparks “disease- free” buffalo breeding project.
Roy’s enquiring mind has led to him being given the high honour of being welcomed as a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in recognition of his “outstanding contribution to the life sciences and superb achievements in the fields of veterinary science, epidemiology and wildlife biology”, but he will be the first to tell you that he only shone academically when he first entered veterinary school.
He jokes that he enjoyed physics 1 in his first year of BSc at Wits University so much that he did it twice, but in the repetition he raised his other marks high enough to be accepted into veterinary school when another student cancelled. “The sun came up when I went to Onderstepoort.”
The sun certainly continued to shine on Roy’s academic career, and he left Onderstepoort with the Clinical Medal in his possession. He pursued his studies in America, earning the right to be called Doctor Bengis twice over, when he completed a PhD in physiology, and obtained a degree in pharmacology into the bargain.
With so much knowledge under his belt, it is little wonder that the many people who count Roy among their friends describe him as a “walking encyclopaedia”, but they are faster to tell you that he “always has time for anybody” and would “drop anything to help you.” Roy has just celebrated his 60th birthday, but has friends whose ages span the decades.
He has been married to his wife, Bibi, for 24 years, and their daughter Lara is currently studying at Grahamstown with a view to becoming an environmental educator. Danie Pienaar, Kruger’s head of scientific services, says, “Roy is one of those extremely loyal friends who anybody can only wish to have,” and adds that he regards Roy as his personal physician, saying, “I would go to him before I went to a doctor.”
Roy has an immense love of the outdoors, and as a child thought of becoming a game ranger. One of four boys, his father was a medical practitioner who regularly took the family out of their Johannesburg home to explore farms and game reserves and indulge in a spot of fly-fishing.
Roy is a fanatical fly-fisherman, a birdwatcher with an especial interest in raptors, and also a keen clay pigeon and wingshooter, but enjoys any activity that takes him into the bush. He is also an avid reptile lover, and is regularly called upon to remove wayward snakes from unwanted places. Section ranger Bruce Leslie says that he loves to go out with Roy in the bush, as his enthusiasm for the many small things is infectious.
“Even after so many years in the park, everything is fresh for him.” Having worked in Kruger for almost 30 years, Roy has seen many changes. With a major interest in how diseases spread, he helped pioneer the basic research that discovered much about how foot and mouth disease is spread.
This allowed the first herbivores, including elephant, hippo and rhino, to be translocated out of the Kruger Park, and helps with the breeding of disease-free buffalo. Roy’s interest in wildlife diseases and his immense knowledge means that he is Africa’s representative at the Office International des Epizooties (World Animal Health Organisation) and was appointed as chairman of its wildlife working group in 2003. Roy is currently helping research bovine tuberculosis in the Kruger Park, and says that the worst day of his life was when he found TB in a buffalo in the park.
Initially thinking it was an isolated instance, he then found more and more cases, and now worries about the potential long-term effects this alien “wild card” could have on the park’s ecosystem. With ecologists and vets taking such a different view of the effects of diseases, Danie Pienaar says that “of all the vets, Roy is able to look at the broader system” and to see things in a practical way.
This was evident when the idea of the transfrontier park was put forward, and there was a lot of resistance to the idea due to animal and human health issues. Danie says that Roy was able to counter the concerns and help pave the way for the idea to come to fruition.
Roy is now a member of the veterinary committee that advises the Joint Management Board of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Despite sitting on so many highpowered committees, the word “humble” also comes up when you talk to his friends, who add that in a social situation he is a great conversation starter with an enormous respect for people.
Another frequent description is Roy’s enthusiasm for rugby. He is a keen Sharks supporter, and his friends recount that it is almost more fun to watch Roy than it is the rugby. Markus Hofmeyr describes how “his whole body follows the match” and At Dekker adds that after the match, Roy must be almost as tired as the players.
Whether it is serving on highpowered intellectual committees or cheering his team on, Dr Harry Biggs accurately summed up Roy Bengis when he said, “He’s an enormously good human being all round.” Or if you prefer, you could take the description of Dr Steve Ofsofsky from the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, who says that Roy is “a living legend.”
By Melissa Wray
In Kruger National Park