Serengeti Shall Not Die

I first came across the title when I was in Tanzania in July 2013, and we drove past a memorial, and our guide cum driver remarked on it. Chancing on the book in a second-hand bookshop in Sedburgh, Lake District in October that year, I bought it, but obviously never got round to reading it. Until I arrived here at Silwood, and had enough time on my hands (including the 1.5 hour long commutes to/fro London on weekends) to start on it. And I’m glad I did. Serengeti Shall Not Die is a book written by Bernhard and Michael Grzimek (and there’s a film of the same name by those guys too), but the book was written and published after the tragic accidental death of Michael in 1959 (hence the memorial; he was only 25). I told some of my (biology/conservation) friends about the book while I was reading it, but most haven’t heard of it, which is quite a shame.

Though my book is by a different publisher. Image taken from Amazon.

A quick summary

Bernhard and Michael Grzimek are a father-son pair of Germans, and Bernhard was the director of the Frankfurt Zoo then. The book chronicles their efforts to save the Serengeti from 1957 to Michael’s death in 1959. At that time, Africa was still under European colonisation. The Serengeti National Park was in Tanganyika (now joined with Zanzibar as Tanzania) under British administration, but used to be part of German East Africa up till 1919. There were plans to redraw the lines of the National Park’s boundary, but no one had any idea about how many animals there were within the Serengeti, nor how/where they moved during the course of the year.

The Grzimeks came up with a plan to fly a small, single-motored plane (“a larger version of the Fieseler Stork of war years, but all metal and more modern” – Chap 2: The Flight to Africa, pp 26.) across the extent of the Serengeti, do an animal census from the air (a first) and track their movements. It sounds easy now, especially on hindsight with the benefit of the past 50+ years of wisdom and insight gained through the hard work of people like the Grzimeks. But at that time, aerial census had never been done before, and they had to figure everything out on their own. They also tracked the animals on the ground, and had to figure out ways to catch the wild antelope, zebras, wildebeest etc. to tag them (so that they’d be identifiable from the air).

Thoughts about the book

It made for really interesting reading, the challenges they came across and how they surmounted the problems they faced, particularly being in the middle of ‘nowhere’ in the 1950s. The things they did then probably can’t be done now – and anyway we’ve got the technology to be able to get the answers we need without having to resort to some of their methods I think, by and large. Though the principles are still valid.

The book also discusses the bushmeat trade and indigenous people (in particular the Masai tribe), and white colonial masters vs black natives dynamics, interspersed within the exciting narrative of adventures of field work. It’s slightly jumpy at times, and I sometimes can’t quite tell when they’re referring to another event at some other chronological time, but overall I really enjoyed the book. Though the constant reference to ‘poisonous’ snakes rather than ‘venomous’ did somewhat annoy me.

Favourite passages

On the value of conservation

Neither to-day, nor to-morrow, but in three of four generations’ time when Bolshevism and Capitalism have long been forgotten and Eastern or Western blocs no longer matter, many people may be glad that during our era, someone gave a thought to the wild animals in Africa. Who worries to-day about the struggles of the Guelphs and Ghibelines and the French Huguenots who were killed or exiled? In 1866 young Hanoverians were killed fighting against the King of Prussia, while four years later their younger brothers fought for the same ruler in his war against France. Most national and political ambitions for which men suffer and die are equally transient, but Nature is of abiding importance to us all. In a hundred years’ time Kruschev and Eisenhower, political anxieties and hatred will only have a printed existence in history books, but men will still consider it important that wildebeest should roam across the plains and leopards growl at night. It will matter all the more if human beings are increasingly condemned to live in soulless concrete cities.  Chap 2: The Flight to Africa, pp 39-40. (emphasis mine)

On humans and nature

The love and favour of men is not to be relied on. When the purse of fashion takes a hand they are easily reversed. That is why we wish this wilderness, in which men cannot make a living anyway, to remain a sanctuary where a few hundred thousand wild animals can live in complete independence. Our grandchildren, as well as those of the Africans, should see what Africa was like before we Europeans brought Christianity and slavery, human rights and machine-guns, medicine and motor-cars. – Chap 7: Zebras Dyed Yellow, pp 111.

Africa is dying and will continue to die. Old maps and remnants of settlements and animals show that the Sahara has advanced 250 miles northward on a 1,250 mile front during the last three centuries. In that short time 390,000 square miles of good land were lost. In neighbouring Kenya the desert advances six miles against the primeval forest every year. So much of Africa is dead already, must the rest follow? Must everything be turned into deserts, farmland, big cities, native settlements and dry brush? One small part of the continent at least should retain its original splendour so that the black and white men who follow us will be able to see it in its awe-filled past glory.
Serengeti, at least, shall not die. – Chap 11: The Poachers’ Lair, pp 164.

A hundred and fifty years ago gigantic herds of other types of animals thundered across the prairies of North America and Canada in similar abundance. Much earlier still Europe presented a similar picture. That was life on earth before man was fruitful and multiplied and “subjugated nature”. In the years to come you will have to fly to the Serengeti if you want to see the splendour that was nature, before God gave it to man to keep and cherish.
That will be the only place to watch big herds on the move, if they are still moving then. – Chap 15: Great Herds on the Move, pp 222.

On colonialism

It is conceivable that negroes are more easy going and less intelligent than Europeans or Asiatics, just as their hair is shorter and their beards grow differently, but up to the present time there is no scientific evidence whatever to support this view. What we have found is that all peoples and “races” have about the same proportion of criminals and murderers, of brilliant men and idiots. … We Europeans must teach our black brothers to value their own possessions, not because we are older or cleverer, but because we do not want them to repeat our mistakes and our sins. … It is well known that wise men cannot pass on their wisdom to their grandchildren; each one must learn by his own mistakes and stupidities. This probably applies to nations as well. The young nations of Africa will have to find their own William Tell and Frederick the Great, Napoleon or Stalin, their own heroes; they will have to make their own wars and bury their own dead. – Chap 8: We Discover Poachers, pp 126, 130-131.

On needing effective conservation and not just paper parks

No European expeditions had gone to this region since hunting was prohibited there. The native hunters could therefore do what they liked without the authorities being any the wiser. If the prohibited areas are merely marked off on a map, the effect can be the reverse of that intended by the government, for the animals may be exterminated. If no game wardens are settled in the regions it is useless to proclaim game reserves, National Parks or protected areas. These look impressive on maps, and the plans and brochures describing them are a splendid sedative for allaying the fears of European and American naturalist organisations. The reserves are well suited to that purpose. Even in the remotest colonies, and in the new independent African states, they shower you with sheaves of official regulations: protective laws, hunting laws, laws of game reserves, etc. The only trouble is that the existence of such laws and reservations is completely unknown inside the territory itself. It is a veritable eye-opener to realise how little attention is paid to these prohibitions, even in such a well-administered colony as Tanganyika. – Chap 11: The Poachers’ Lair, pp 157.

On hunters and photographers

I get no pleasure from killing animals, but I am not a fanatic who wants to convert all others to my point of view. I know full well that roe deer, red deer, wild boars and hares would be extinct in Europe if it had not been for hunters. Our last “wild” animals would have been exterminated as pests if the huntsmen had not paid for damages to crops and even fed the game during hard winters. The actual killing of the game is merely incidental to a good hunter. Nowadays many people proudly come home with photographs instead of trophies, for, as every expert knows, it is much harder to shoot a bull elephant with a camera than with a rifle. – Chap 12: African Big Game Hunters, pp 169.

On offsetting

Not all grassy plains are of equal value. You cannot simply cut off a portion of the Serengeti Park and add an equal number of square miles to the north of it. There is a very good reason why the herds prefer the heart of this famous region: they know what is good for them. – Chap 16: Serengeti Shall Not Die, pp 228.

Final paragraphs of inspiration

If we had died that night nobody could have made sense out of our many notes on the life of the herds of animals in Serengeti. Nobody else could have edited and cut the seventy thousand feet of coloured film intended to produce the film of our dreams. The chance of survival of the Serengeti inhabitants would have been lessened.

This probably seems unimportant to most people, to the people who would say: “Thos two didn’t deserve any better. Why did they risk their necks for zebras and lions?” Men have other ideals for which they are willing to die: freedom, glory, politics, religion, the rulership of their class or the expansion of national borders. But in the long run Michael and I will be proved right. …

Men are easily inspired by human ideas, but they forget them again just as quickly. Only Nature is eternal, unless we senselessly destroy it. In fifty years’ time nobody will be interested in the results of the conferences which fill today’s headlines.

But when, fifty years from now, a lion walks into the red dawn and roars resoundingly, it will mean something to people and quicken their hearts whether they are bolshevists or democrats, or whether they speak English, German, Russian or Swahili. They will stand in quiet awe as, for the first time in their lives, they watch twenty thousand zebras wander across the endless plains.

Is it really so stupid to work for the zebras, lions and men who will walk the earth fifty years from now? And for those in a hundred or two hundred years’ time… ?

– Chap 16: Serengeti Shall Not Die, pp 241-242.

And that, I guess, is why I believe in preserving some wilderness, even if the concept of wilderness is corrupt because there is no longer any part of the earth that can still be considered ‘pristine’ and truly ‘wild’.

Sunset at the Serengeti. For more photos, check my blog post.

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About Jocelyne Sze

I'm a Nature-lover, aspiring conservationist, and wannabe traveller in search of outdoor adventure.
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