Thomas M. Lekan, "Our Gigantic Zoo: A German Quest to Save the Serengeti" (Oxford UP, 2020)


How did the Serengeti become an internationally renowned African conservation site and one of the most iconic destinations for a safari?

In Our Gigantic Zoo: A German Quest to Save the Serengeti (Oxford UP, 2020), Thomas M. Lekan illuminates the controversial origins of this national park by examining how Europe's greatest wildlife conservationist, former Frankfurt Zoo director and Oscar-winning documentarian Bernhard Grzimek, popularized it as a global destination. In the 1950s, Grzimek and his son Michael began a quest to save the Serengeti from modernization and "overpopulation" by remaking an imperial game reserve into a gigantic zoo for the earth's last great mammals. Grzimek, well-known to German audiences through his long-running television program, A Place for Animals, used the film Serengeti Shall Not Die to convince ordinary Europeans that they could save nature. Yet their message sidestepped the uncomfortable legacies of German colonial exploitation in the region that had endangered animals and excluded local people. After independence, Grzimek raised funds, brokered diplomatic favors, and convinced German tourists to book travel packages—all to persuade Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere that wildlife would fuel the young nation's economic development. Grzimek helped Tanzania to create almost a dozen new national parks by 1975, but wooing tourists conflicted with rights of the Maasai and other African communities to inhabit the landscape on their own terms. Grzimek's global priorities eventually clashed with Nyerere's nationalist ones, as a more self-assertive Tanzania resented conservationists' meddling and failed promises.

A story that demonstrates the conflicts between international conservation, nature tourism, decolonization, and national sovereignty, Our Gigantic Zoo explores the legacy of the man who portrayed himself as a second Noah, called on a sacred mission to protect the last vestiges of paradise for all humankind.

Eric Grube is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Boston College. He also received his PhD from Boston College in the summer of 2022. He studies modern German and Austrian history, with a special interest in right-wing paramilitary organizations across interwar Bavaria and Austria. "Casualties of War? Refining the Civilian-Military Dichotomy in World War I", Madison Historical Review, 2019. "Racist Limitations on Violence: The Nazi Occupation of Denmark", Essays in History, 2017.

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Eric Grube

Eric Grube is a Doctoral Candidate in German and Austrian history at Boston College.

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