Serengeti Shall Not Die

This picture tells a story of when enough of these lovely creatures survived to be hit by a car. This on the main Mombasa Nairobi Road...
This picture tells a story of when enough of these lovely creatures survived to be hit by a car. This on the main Mombasa Nairobi Road…

When I finally boarded an aircraft at PDX after grappling for almost a week with flight delays and diversions, thanks to the European volcanic ash saga, I had under my arm a companion book that I thought was quite appropriate for this journey.

In the late 1950s Bernhard Grzimek, a German biologist, conservation zealot and director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, undertook, along with his 24-year old son Michael, the first coordinated and comprehensive study of the Serengeti as a single, self contained ecosystem. This was in order to forestall gazetted plans published by the local colonial authorities to reduce the area of the park in response to the growing pressures of human population. The resulting book and film – Serengeti Shall Not Die – resonated around the world to enormous public acclaim, and succeeded in spectacular fashion in establishing the reputation of the Serengeti as one of the world’s most important surviving natural migration zones. The release also elevated the Grzimek name…pronounce Jimek I am told…to cult status in global conservation circles. An old circa 1961 copy of this book, purchased a week earlier for $3 plus shipping from, sat on my knee as we catapulted westward across the Pacific towards Africa, and there it remained for the next 47-hours of a long and laborious flight.

For those not familiar with the Serengeti here is a quick thumbnail sketch to add a little context to the story:

In the land of the Lion King, amid the open plains and the thundering hooves, situated in the mythic interior of the Dark Continent, lies an amazingly complete volcanic landscape that is gifted with such splendour and vulnerability that it has inspired the awe and anxiety of generations of explorers, hunters, conservationists and tourists. It lies on the leading edge of the Great Rift Valley where a line of volcanic eruptions in deep pre-history created a raised series of shattered caldera, the ash and debris from which was blown northwest on prevailing winds to be uniformly deposited as the foundation of a vast interior plain. As layers of time coaxed productivity out of the desolation, enormous quadruped herds began to evolve, moving in a circular migration within a closed ecosystem. Here the very first steps of mankind were taken as an evolutionary niche was identified. A primate species of particular intuition gathered up its young, adapted it’s pelvis and feet to walking on two legs, and set off in pursuit of the Migration.

This, then, is the splendid sisterhood of the Ngorongoro Crater Reserve, the Serengeti National Park and the Masai Mara Game Reserve, three distinct conservancies straddling Tanzania and Kenya, and defining the Serengeti/Mara Ecosystem. To take just one step deeper into layman science, the Serengeti/Mara eco-system is an area within which the iconic wildebeest Migration takes place. This phenomenon sees vast herds of wildebeest, augmented somewhat by smaller herds of zebra, eland and gazelle, following the local rain cycle in a recurring migration that hardly varies in its regularity, and varies very little in its scope and direction.

As I have mentioned, Bernhard Grzimek at that time of writing his book was director of the Frankfurt Zoological society, and was as a consequence quite influential in conservation circles. His was one of few voices to register concern at the lack of formal scientific knowledge available to guide any strata of officialdom in taking an action so drastic as to dismember the Serengeti National Park, and aimed at an ecological treasure so utterly irreplaceable. Armed with little more than instinct and optimism, he and his 24-year old son Michael rejected the official view of the Migration as being limited in scope and linear in form, and determined to prove that it was much greater than thus perceived.

Both men believed, as would indeed turn out to be the case, that the Migration ranged far beyond the then defined boundaries of the Serengeti National Park, and into adjacent country that at that time was neither protected nor individually owned, but which was nonetheless increasingly occupied by a thickening soup of indigenous populations.

A certain amount of time pressure existed to solve the mystery of the migration. With an average annual increase of human population, very conservatively estimated at 3% per annum, it was natural that a tradition of hunting and other consumptive exploitation of the wildlife would quickly begin to take on industrial proportions if not checked. This in combination with settlement, cattle husbandry and cultivation, could and would very quickly obstruct the Migration and very possibly bring an end to the cycle of natural life that defines the Serengeti/Mara Ecosystem. This the Grzimeks were committed to preventing, for it was their determination that Serengeti would not die.

To put the whole saga in further context, the late 1950s were very difficult times in East Africa. An extremely pleasant and productive century of European imperial control was coming to an end. World War I had dealt a body-blow to the institution of global empire, followed by World War II which had effectively laid it on the canvas. A flood of post war immigration had seen the settler populations of the region flourish, but behind this rush of productivity and development was the knowledge that it was all rapidly coming to an end.

How the incoming black governments would treat the surviving white institutions remained to be seen, and perhaps among the foremost of these institutions were the vast networks of parks and wildlife conservancies that had been put in place in the early part of the 20th century. Few whites held any particular faith that the black political elite cared one iota for the survival of the wildlife beyond the availability of land and the plunder of meat. Indeed, most Bantu languages have one word the suffices for both meat and wild animal – nyama – which boded extremely ill for the survival of the diminishing wildlife heritage of Africa.

Bernhard Grizimek was the principal author of the book, Serengeti Shall Not Die, and it was he, as the older man, who, not surprisingly, was more pessimistic. One particular quote drawn from the book is worth reproducing here to give some sense of what his generation was feeling at that time. After reflecting on the fact that a 150 years or so earlier vast herds of wild animals had roamed the earth from the Cape to the tundra, from the Asian steppe to the great prairies, Berhard Grzimek remarked thus:

…that was life on earth before man was fruitful and multiplied and subjugated the earth. In years to come you will have to fly to the Serengeti if you want to see the splendour that is nature, before God gave it to man to keep and cherish.1

How nice to be able to land a plane anywhere in the Serengeti...
How nice to be able to land a plane anywhere in the Serengeti…

Well, flying to the Serengeti was indeed the journey I was on. My objective was a little more prosaic than my two companions in spirit who had briefly juxtaposed their noble mission on my own. I was simply gathering a little background at their expense on somewhere that I was to be employed on a short contract. Since the volcano had diverted me west around the globe instead of east I turned the pages of Serengeti Shall Not Die from the gilded interior of Dubai International Airport instead of the more pedestrian Frankfurt International. It had been from precisely there that the Grzimek father and son team set off 50-years earlier on an adventurous transect of Africa north to south in a zebra striped light aircraft.

From Frankfurt the pair plunged south across Europe, breaching the Mediterranean into Libya and then following the North African coast to Egypt. From there they followed the ancient highway of the Nile through Sudan and Uganda before crossing Kenya and finally arriving in the Tanganyika town of Arusha.

How nice to be able to land a plane anywhere in the Serengeti…

At that time Arusha, nestling in the southern lee of Mount Meru, a 14000ft snow-capped giant of a mountain whose misfortune it was to look rather small compared to her 19300ft sibling Kilimanjaro, was an unplanned regional capital that the British had taken over from the Germans in 1916 and settled impermanently as one might a hotel room. These days Arusha is a sprawling African city with no more obvious planning than at any earlier time, and otherwise afflicted with the usual regional maladies of unruly traffic, catastrophic air pollution and the infectious colour and vivacity of African urban life.

The Grzimeks then enjoyed the luxury of a very relaxed system as it was in those days, and no doubt the clout of the Frankfurt Zoological Society behind them as well. This allowed them to set off by air and land more-or-less anywhere they wanted to on the vast Serengeti Plain. For my part I was forced to grapple with recalcitrant trucks, petty officialdom and a significant outlay of capital in the seething, imponderable and noisy confusion of an African city. For me, however, my final destination was a luxury tented camp on the productive fringes of the National Park while for them it was a Nissan hut situated somewhere in the bush near Seronera.

The upshot of it all was that before I came anywhere near the great plains of the Serengeti I had finished the book and learned quite a bit about the evolution of the Serengeti as a conservation area, facts I will delight you with on another posting. I also was reminded that the two men ultimately did succeed in giving scope to the migration and ensuring that Serengeti did not die. What it fact happened was a general rearrangement of the Serengeti map to increase the area under protection, give indigenous people more generous access to the resource, and into some measure of the future secure the ecosystem and the migration that defines it.

My own journey through the Serengeti was a little hurried as a late start triggered anxiety about getting through the park to the far northern gate in time before it shut for the night. It was just before four o’clock on a beautiful May afternoon that I checked into the Ngorongoro Crater Reserve and headed off at pace towards the main Serengeti gate. It was evident as I drove along the long, straight and dusty road, with those signature plains fading into a deep cobalt haze, that the Migration had begun moving north on either side of the road. The first herds I encountered were modest in size, perhaps between ten and fifteen thousand head of wildebeest apiece, but as the truck nosed deeper into the park it became difficult to estimate the numbers of animals stretching away beyond my line of sight.

It would not have surprised me to hear that one or two of the big herds contained upwards of 50 000 head, maybe more. All in all I would say that I drove within visual reach of more than 200 000 wildebeest and perhaps 50 000 zebra. This is the Serengeti at its most astonishing best, and although the journey was hurried, it was no less spectacular for that fact.

An interesting postscript to all of this is that Bernhard Grzimek would have certainly been amazed at a wildebeest herd now numbering some 1.3 million in totality, particularly when, according to his count, the number stood at 350 000 in 1960. I would moreover venture that his amazement would be less at the spectacle itself (because lets face it 10 000 wildebeest can look a lot like 20 000 wildebeest) than the fact that modern Africa under majority rule has been able to so completely debunk the dire prognostications of a generation earlier.

Let me conclude this posting, therefore, with both a melancholy and a joyful fact. The melancholy fact is defined perhaps best by a lonely little plaque that sits largely forgotten along the main transit route through the Ngorongoro Crater Reserve, a road that skirts the Crater itself and offers brief but sweeping views into the caldera, perhaps one of the most spectacular natural vistas in the world. The wording on the plaque reads:

MICHAEL GRZIMEK 12.4.1934 – 10.1.1959 He gave all he possessed for the wild animals of Africa, including his life.

Indeed, for a true conservation zealot, the death of Michael Grzimek in a tragic aircraft accident over the Salei Plains as the project was drawing to a conclusion was not in vain. As I have mentioned, the efforts of the father and son team to make known the true nature and extend of the Migration did indeed forestall a sectioning of the area of the Serengeti under official protection, and in due course this was, as both men had hoped it would be, augmented by further additions to encompass almost the entire area of the great perambulation.

I have met conservationists here in the past few weeks who’s view of things is not so rosy. Serengeti is still holding on by a thread, as is the wildlife heritage of Africa as a whole, but that is a story for another day…

1 Grzimek, Berhard & Michael. Serengeti Shall not Die (E.P. Dutton & Co, New York, 1961) p314

  • Safaris in Tanzania

    This man; Grizmek was a great man. I am however very disturbed by the tendency of everyone having concerns about the 50 kilometers of road that is supposed to be constructed across the Serengeti National Park. SO what about the Loliondo Game Controlled area, where the Great Migration passes through during the months of November on their way from Masai mara. I would propose that the Tarmac should not touch that area too.