Benny stands at the entrance of his home and warmly welcomes me in. His demeanor is calming and gracious. I automatically feel transported to another part of the world as everything in the apartment is Africa-themed. We sit down and after he offers me something to drink we begin our interview.
The most obvious of questions is how does a man from Iran living in Germany become a wildlife photographer in Africa?
As a child I liked to watch documentaries about lions and other animals. We had an old t.v. in our home, and while the rest of my family wanted to watch movies and shows, I fought to watch documentaries about Africa. And I fell in love with Africa. Ever since then, it was my dream to go to Africa, sit on a tree and watch the giraffes and zebras roam free. I never gave up on that dream and I worked hard to reach it. In 1995, I finally got the chance to go for the first time. When I arrived in Uganda and got out of the plane, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was coming home. This feeling has never changed. Every time I go to Africa it’s like coming home.
My wife is always worried because she says I forget to drink or eat. She says, ‘you hang around the lions and forget everything else.’ I really do forget everything else. Nothing is as important.
What is your favorite place in Africa?
I cannot say exactly what my favorite place is because at different times in the year, it’s a different place. In February, the best place to be is Tanzania. Wildebeests, zebras and other animals give birth. Thousands of animals are born and where there are this many animals, predators are not far away. They attack their prey. So a lot is happening in front of your eyes. It’s interesting to see all of this. In August, the great migration takes place in Kenya, in the Masai Mara. It also depends on what you want to see. Namibia has the most beautiful landscape. For me, it is the most beautiful country in the world in terms of landscape.
If you haven’t seen Africa, you have really missed out. The wild parts of Africa, where you can go on safari are the best parts. Eastern Africa down to the southern tip is where you find the big game and safari areas.
Our conversation transitions to some of the problems that Benny currently sees in Africa today.
The amount of space for the animals is continually diminishing. The number of people there now really scares me. I remember 20 years ago while traveling through South Africa, the 300 km road to Kruger park was mostly empty land, open savannah or protected areas. Today, when you travel the same road all you see is city after city. There are only a few open spaces that are owned by private game reserves. It is horrible to drive on these roads now. In Kenya, Tanzania, it is the same everywhere.
Do you ever worry you will not see these animals in 20 years?
Of course. There are environmental protection organizations that have different ways to approach these problems. WWF tells people that if they keep their natural treasures they will profit. This organization appeals to the greed of men to do something good and that’s the only way to keep people away from the animals. If they don’t see profit in it, they will kill it. Part of my job is to show the beauty of nature and make people want to conserve this beauty. When people want to see these animals they go on safari with me, take photos and spend lots of money in these countries. Billions of dollars are spent in Africa because of safari. Many corrupt governments in Africa only keep reserves open because of the money coming in through safaris. They would sell it right away if there was no money in it. Even now they try, although these places are under protection, to sell the rights to oil companies. Africa is rich with resources and many of the national parks have resources underground. The governments always try to see where they can make more money. If it’s tourism, they keep it. If it’s not, they sell it. The biggest problem in Africa is corruption.
What are some of the things you are doing to help improve the situation there?
I support environmental organizations like Greenpeace and WWF. To conserve what is left. To show the beauty of Africa. To try and keep alive the wildlife for the next generation. Sometimes they ask me to support them with their projects. We create projects together. For the last 20 years I always give a part of my income to different environmental organizations. It’s not just promoting but also giving them money so they can run their projects. That is something we can all do to help.
There are problems, of course, but what are some of the positive aspects of this continent that draws you back?
There is no place on the planet with more adventures to be had. There are so many beautiful places. You can still have the feeling that you are the first person walking down a path. That’s the reason why I spend six months a year in Africa. There are still places where I can escape civilization, go for adventures and do photography. I have many friends there. Although we know there are many problems, we enjoy our lives to the fullest. I don’t sit at home depressed, I know what’s going on, but I try to enjoy my life. I have made friends among the animals. I am also able to pay my living expenses with what I love to do. To get paid to do what you love is one of the greatest gifts. Many friends of mine are rangers. They would never do anything else. The rangers are not well paid. They have their small income but they are happy. They smile when they come back from their day walk. It’s a big difference between making 500 dollars a month and your body is finished because you’ve worked in a factory or if you make your 500 dollars by going on safari with other people. Sitting and watching the animals. It’s a different life. If I wasn’t a photographer I would be a ranger. I would live as a ranger. I studied to be a ranger and that’s why I can work with animals because I know many things that others don’t know. That’s why I can sit in front of lions and cheetahs.
What can you teach me about the so-called dangerous animals from your encounters with them?
I was attacked by lions, leopards, rhinos, anything that is dangerous attacked me. The reaction you have to these attacks is always important for your survival. If you know how to react, you will live to tell about it. If you observe the animals closely you will notice that different animals come across each other every day. For example, elephants chase away lions with a mock charge. And when the lions want to drink and there’s a cheetah, they try to charge them away. It’s not a real fight, it’s a charge. What they are saying is, ‘this is my territory.’ The animals didn’t want to kill me. I was simply in their way. So it’s important that you know how to handle it. When it comes to this situation. I have learned that you must stand tall. In the case of big cats, you need to make yourself bigger, shout at them and be aggressive. Make them feel threatened by you. The energy is what makes the lions stop. I have photos and videos right in front of lions. Two lions attacked me, but they didn’t kill me.
Can you tell me about your most recent projects?
I have written five books. A 3-D book I wrote is in five languages. My newest and largest book is in English and German. It is a fine art book that comes in two versions. The cover is made of luxury acrylic glass, and the back of the book is made of the finest Italian leather. I also made sure to have the highest quality photo book paper from Japan. It is a book for art collectors, investors of art and people who just love Africa.
What is your message?
The nature in Africa is beautiful. There are still empty and wild places on this planet to explore. We must conserve them for the next generation.
I walk away from my conversation with Benny Rebel content but also with some concerns about whether or not we will be able to conserve the natural wonders of the world. Society is so obsessed with material things and wealth, that we forget to value nature. We are always in pursuit of the next big thing. The next new gadget or toy to purchase. All while we exhaust our natural resources and negatively impact our planet. Will we still have the opportunity to witness the roar of a lion, the speed of a cheetah, the strength of the elephant in 20 years from now? That will be determined by the actions we take today.