Bernhard Grzimek

Zoologist, conservationist, veterinarian, zoo director, film maker, author, environmental politician - and President of the Frankfurt Zoological Society.

Bernhard Grzimek im HR Studio
Grzimek as familiar to viewers of the TV show "Ein Platz für Tiere" (Photo: Okapia)

At the beginning of the 1950s, with Germany rebuilding after the war, Bernhard Grzimek headed for Africa. His first trip was to the Ivory Coast - and his son Michael Grzimek, who was just 16 at the time, went along with him. As the Director of the Zoo, Bernhard Grzimek wanted to collect animals for the Frankfurt institution which had been badly destroyed in the War. He also wanted to study and film the habits of the animals in their natural environment with the goal of improving their enclosure conditions in the Zoo.


Within just a few years these activities developed into a unique commitment to the wildlife of Africa. Bernhard and his son Michael conducted animal surveys by plane, laying the groundwork for modern nature conservation work at Serengeti National Park and for Frankfurt Zoological Society's global nature conservation programme. He remained the President of the Society until his death in 1987.


The Grzimeks, father and son, were an extraordinary team and enjoyed a very close relationship. Their film "Serengeti Shall Not Die" was a global success. Bernhard Grzimek received a coveted Academy Award for the film in Hollywood in 1960. It was the first German Oscar and the only one ever awarded to a wildlife documentary. His son never lived to receive his honour. He died before the end of filming in 1959 when his zebra-striped Dornier crashed.




Bernhard Grzimek, son of civil law notary Paulfranz Grzimek and wife Margot, was born on 24 April 1909 as the youngest of six children in Neiße in Upper Silesia. While still at school the young Bernhard regularly brought home animals from the forest and fields, including a hedgehog. Has classmates nicknamed him "Hedgehog" because the name "Grzimek" was difficult for them to pronounce. The hedgehog remained his heraldic symbol for the rest of his life. After attending secondary school in Neiße he studied Zoology and Veterinarian Medicine in Leipzig. He then completed a PhD in Veterinarian Medicine in Berlin.

Zeitschrift Du und das Tier
Grzimek reporting in 1959 in "Du und das Tier" about filming in Africa and the attempt to censor the line about lions

In order to finance his studies he managed a poultry farm and an agricultural enterprise close to Berlin. While still studying he married Hildegard Prüfer with whom he had three sons: the first were Rochus and Michael who later died in an accident. Then came Thomas, his coloured adopted son.


After graduating, Grzimek first worked as a vet but then quickly changed to the Reichs Food Ministry where his areas of responsibility included chicken diseases, the quality of German eggs and the containment of bovine tuberculosis. However, he devoted his academic work to behavioural research and animal psychology, especially in great apes and wolves. He was a veterinarian officer during World War 2. He conducted experiments on colour vision and the homing ability of army horses and he regularly wrote columns on behavioural research in the "Illustriertes Blatt" - anticipating to some extent his later media career. At that time the Grzimek family lived in Berlin and when the Berlin Zoo was destroyed in the bombing raids, some of the surviving animals ended up in the Grzimeks' flat which they now shared with chimpanzees and a small orang-utan.


Fleeing from the threat of imprisonment, Grzimek moved to Frankfurt in March 1945. Wilhelm Hollbach, the former editor-in-chief of the "Illustriertes Blatt" had just been installed as the Bürgermeister of Frankfurt and was now looking for competent individuals with a journalistic background for his team. Grzimek, too, was approached and worked initially as adjutant to the Oberbürgermeister, as Hollbach then became. Yet Grzimek's true calling lay elsewhere: the Zoo which had been completely destroyed and the closure of which had already been resolved. With the help of the Allied occupying forces he succeeded in keeping the last remaining animals alive and moving them. Upon being appointed director of the ruined Zoo on 1 May 1945, he made use of the chaotic situation to integrate adjacent land which had been destroyed by bombing into the Zoo.

Not afraid to use unconventional means and to adopt new ideas, he started to rebuild the Zoo. At the start of the 1950s, he travelled to Africa to catch animals and also to study their habits as a means of improving the conditions in which they were kept in the Zoo. The plight of the wildlife in Africa appalled him and he embarked upon a campaign that was to occupy him for the rest of his life.

Journey to Africa

In 1956 he noted down his impressions of Africa in the book "No Room for Wild Animals" which was subsequently made into a film of the same name and which in turn beat a Walt Disney production to take the top prize in the Berlin Film Festival. The film consumed all the personal savings of Bernhard and his son Michael; their liability costs for this adventure amounted to several hundred thousand deutschmarks. 

Grzimeks Do 27
The Dornier 27, the "flying zebra", became the trademark of the two Grzimeks. The purpose of the stripes was to make the aircraft more visible in the savanna in the event of an emergency (Photos: Okapia)

The Grzimeks wanted to donate the unexpectedly high revenue from the successful film to the Tanzania National Parks organisation TANAPA for the purchase of land. However, the then Director, Peter Molloy, suggested that a better use of the money would be to fund a survey of the animals that migrated across the region. Only if they knew where these great herds went could they protect the Serengeti appropriately, said Molley.


At the age of 48 he and his 23 year old son Michael learned to fly, bought a single-engine Dornier aircraft, painted it in the famous zebra stripes, and set off for Africa to start counting the animals. He was to pay a high price for the project: Michael's aircraft crashed to the east of the Serengeti on 10 January 1959. The young father left behind two sons: Christian and Stephan. The film documenting their work in east Africa, however, went on to enjoy global success. "Serengeti Shall Not Die" won an Oscar in 1960 and the book of the same name was translated into 23 different languages.


The film classification board in Wiesbaden was not prepared to award "Serengeti Shall Not Die" its top commendation unless the makers deleted two sentences. One was, "The world would be a better place if people behaved the same as lions," and the other was the claim that preserving the last herd of zebra was just as important for humans as preserving the Acropolis or St Peter's cathedral in Rome.


Grzimek felt very strongly that both statements were entirely justified. The film classification board finally relented. "Serengeti Shall Not Die" was shown in more than 60 countries and garnered numerous awards.

Serious academic and avuncular TV presenter

The first edition of the magazine "Das Tier" was published in 1960 by Bernhard Grzimek, Konrad Lorenz and Heini Hediger. The spectrum of the animal-themed magazine ranged from scientific articles through to pet stories. In the same year Grzimek was appointed professor of the Veterinarian faculty of Giessen University and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Humboldt University in Berlin. The committed zoo director campaigned tirelessly for the wildlife of Africa. His TV programme "Ein Platz für Tiere" was one of the most popular series on German television in the 1960s and 70s. When it was launched by Hessische Rundfunk in 1956 nobody could ever have imagined how successful it would eventually prove. 175 editions were broadcast over a period spanning almost 30 years. Some of the programmes achieved audience ratings of almost 70 percent.

LP Stars für Grzimek
German "Schlager" stars of the 60s and 70s supported Bernhard Grzimek's cause (LP cover).

The series became a family institution and helped shape an entire generation's understanding of nature. His appeal for donations at the end of each broadcast brought in millions for conservation work in Africa. At the start of the 60s he repeatedly claimed that it was possible to travel to the African national parks for three weeks for a certain (entirely fictitious) price, putting the package holiday organisers under pressure to offer the first charter flights there. The gradual growth of tourism in turn gave rise to the creation of new national parks.


But it was not only the animals of Africa which attracted Grzimek's attention. As early as the 1960s he started to use the money donated to the "Hilfe für die bedrohte Tierwelt" fund for projects elsewhere. These included the Galapagos Islands where he invested money in the conservation of the endangered giant tortoise.


He managed his conservation projects through the Frankfurt Zoological Society, the friendly society of his zoo. In doing so he moved the society in a completely new direction: towards international conservation. Grzimek was committed to nature conservation in general, but he was clearly primarily concerned with wildlife conservation. He protested against seal culls in Canada and the intensive livestock methods used in German poultry farms by making appeals and organising postcard campaigns which were revolutionary for their time. He took on the fur industry and, alongside Hans Hass, fought against spearfishing methods using harpoons. The words of the TV "animal professor" carried weight. He capitalised on his status and collected hundreds of thousands of deutschmarks over the years for his "Hilfe für die bedrohte Tierwelt" fund. Many years after his death the "Hilfe für die bedrohte Tierwelt" fund was still receiving large bequests. In 2001 this eventually formed the share capital of the foundation of the same name.

Excursion into politics

At the start of 1970 Grzimek was appointed Federal Government Commissioner for Conservation by Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt. However, he resigned again in 1973, disappointed by the fact that he was not able to achieve what he had hoped for. In 1975 Bernhard Grzimek, Horst Stern and 19 other conservationists joined forces to set up the Bund für Umwelt- und Naturschutz Deutschland (Friends of the Earth Germany). For a period Grzimek was president of the Deutscher Naturschutzring (German League for Nature, Animal Protection and Environment) and campaigned for the formation of the Bavarian Forest National Park. He received numerous national and international honours, ranging from the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany) and the Goldene Kamera through to the Order of Trishakti Patta issued by the King of Nepal.

Grzimek and Nyerere
Grzimek's friendship with Tanzanian President Dr. Julius Nyerere endured for many years. Back in the 60s, Nyerere noted the significance of the wilderness areas for Tanzania's national heritage in his "Arusha Manifesto". (Photo: Okapia)

15 years after his son's death, Grzimek married Michael's widow, Erika. He remained Director of the Frankfurt Zoo until 1974, building it up from its post-war ruins into an internationally renowned institution. From 1971 he was also the President of the Frankfurt Zoological Society. He was the author of numerous publications, editor of "Das Tier" magazine and, not least, author of the most comprehensive zoological work, "Grzimeks Tierleben", which was first issued in 1970 and new editions of which are still being printed to this day.


In his retirement he devoted himself entirely to the Frankfurt Zoological Society which he had built up into a major conservation organisation. He continued to travel each year to Africa to keep an eye on the projects and problems there and to raise funds.


On 13 March 1987 he suffered a heart attack while watching tigers perform in the Williams-Althoff Circus in Frankfurt. His ashes were later taken to the Ngorongoro crater where his remains now lie buried next to those of his son, Michael.

Text: Dagmar Andres-Brümmer, FZS