Tom Lekan got used to friends and family members asking him when his “Serengeti book” was coming out.
After all, writing Our Gigantic Zoo: A German Quest to Save the Serengeti took the history professor a lot longer than he’d expected. He’d sketched out an early outline for the book way back in 2008; it wouldn’t be published until Oxford University Press issued it in January 2020.
But the book was worth the wait: In October 2021, it won the German Studies Association’s DAAD Book Prize in History and Social Sciences.
“The award was so meaningful to me,” Lekan says. “There were many times during the writing and rewriting of the manuscript that I had serious doubts about being able to pull off a transnational history with so many intricate layers and multiple actors.”
The book is a nonlinear account of the tensions between global ambition and local place-making during the boom of national parks, nature tourism and wildlife television in the mid-20th century. It moves between West Germany, Tanzania, the United Kingdom and the United States, zooming in on local contexts and zooming out consider global connections. It weaves German postwar history, decolonization and Cold War dynamics as it examines the problematic origins and unintended consequences of German and European wildlife conservation and nature tourism.
But at the center of it all is one man: the charismatic German zoologist and conservationist Bernhard Grzimek, who thought that decolonization would spur modernization in Africa and destroy the continent’s wildlife without an international rescue plan. Grzimek was former director of the Frankfurt Zoo when he started making forays into Africa, and he saw working landscapes as potential open zoos. But his vision of nature protection in the Serengeti left little room for accommodating African views or interests. Grzimek’s approach was a kind of “fortress conservation,” Lekan says, that displaced nomadic Maasai herders, exacerbated environmental inequalities and stuck a developing country with the bill of protecting the wildlife that Western conservationists wanted to save.
We spoke with Lekan about the unintended consequences of Grzimek’s activism, how they can still be felt six decades later and why we shouldn’t exoticize Africa. (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did Grzimek become the book’s central character?
In German-speaking Europe, everybody knows him. The viewership of his television series — it ran once a month for more than 30 years, 1956 to 1987 — was something like, 80 percent. Nobody gets that anymore.
I thought: Well, there's the hook. People know him as this guy who brings cheetahs to the studio, but they don't know about how he raises money through the Zoological Society to promote conservation abroad. He creates this film Serengeti Shall Not Die, which wins the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature [in 1960]. And they dub into English, so he has a real international influence. His generation — Marlon Perkins, Jacques Cousteau, David Attenborough — they all emerged as wildlife television stars right at the moment of decolonization. And in this little niche in the '60s, he's just immensely influential — partly because he has a larger-than-life personality but he's also just a lot more ... I guess you could say authoritarian. He is so sure of his rightness and his moral authority that in some ways it blinds him to these contradictions that emerge from conservation.
He raises a lot of money, but the difference between him and some other folks, like the leaders of the World Wildlife Fund, which is just emerging at that time, is he raised his money from ordinary TV viewers. He didn't go to fancy banquets. And I think that amplified the moral authority of his mission — he saw it as a grassroots effort to save lions and rhinos from destruction.
Save from whom and for whom becomes the bigger question.
These blind spots that Grzimek has — do they still exist in modern ecotourism and conservation?
Yes, I think so. The biggest blind spot, in my mind, was to assume that all local farmers, pastoralists and hunters were necessarily destroyers of the environment, to place the blame for Africa's environmental ills on local Maasai or Ikoma residents. They had learned to live with and among these animals for centuries. So that's a huge blind spot to miss that there are alternative ways of thinking about conservation in working landscapes, even if it's not named as such. That’s enormous. And it’s almost irreparable. Because now we, in some ways, have lost local, practical environmental knowledge that is gained by being on certain land for a long time and living with large mammals who sometimes raid your crops or eat your livestock. We think of the majesty of elephants and lions, and they are beautiful and grand, but they are dangerous landscape companions if you are a farmer or herder.
Tourism feels, to me, like it's part and parcel of that larger process. You can't easily use an instrument of consumerism to save animals from consumerism.
What do you hope is the big takeaway from the book? How does understanding this history help us understand the push and pull between tourism and conservation today?
Environmentalists talk about thinking globally and acting locally. And I sort of switch that and say, what happens when we think locally and act globally? You think about nature from television images and from zoos and zoological gardens and from nature books, and you don't often think about the animals in place with people who have to interact with them every single day. And we still don’t.
If you think about tourism as infrastructure and tourism as industry, it really changes your perspective on what it can accomplish in a developing country, especially when it doesn’t come from Tanzanian entrepreneurs, or must rely on a somewhat impoverished infrastructure for that purpose. But again, is that the purpose of what people in the area would want? In the 1960s, I would say a good majority had no idea of how this would benefit them. And it felt decades away — to the extent that they even believed that it would help them, it would be decades away.
I did a long day hike with a Maasai guide, and I in my very broken Swahili, I aked, "If you could have anything, what would you want?" And he said "I really just want more water. I just need more water because we need to grow. We don't have enough land to do just the cattle herding anymore, so we have to grow vegetables and there's no water." The things that people want don't always mesh with what can be traded in for cash. I think that's been a real flashpoint and continues to be in that area around the Serengeti.
If we can't give up on the myth of wild Africa, we're going to continue to invest money in something that doesn't serve local people or that they don't think is part of their own. It's an environmental justice issue, and it actually doesn't serve species conservation interests. You can't lock animals away forever in these essentially open zoos.