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Michael Grzimek

A concise biography of the film-maker and adventurer Michael Grzimek (12 April 1934 - 10 January 1959)

Michael Grzimek
Michael Grzimek (photo: Okapia)

Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael enjoyed a special relationship. They were more than father and son: they were friends, partners and, at times, even conspirators - especially when it came to cooking up pranks together. Readers gained an insight into just how close their relationship must have been in the preface to "Serengeti Shall Not Die". Bernhard Grzimek wrote: "I wish all fathers could have a son who is also a comrade and friend whom they get along well with. If only for a few years."


While still young, Michael joined his father on his travels - as an equal partner who carried his fair share of responsibility. He was just 16 when he accompanied his father Bernhard for the first time to the Ivory Coast in January 1951 to observe wildlife. By the end of the trip the two had captured a number of animals for the Frankfurt Zoo. The young Michael then returned alone on the cargo ship to Europe with: a boa constrictor, patas monkeys and chimpanzees. Two years later Michael again accompanied his father to the Congo to bring the first okapi back to Germany.


Even at the tender age of 18 Michael was just as committed and independent as his father. He used his own money to make a film based on his father's book "Kein Platz für wilde Tiere". The film was the first film ever to show people at home in Germany the problems faced by wild animals in Africa. It proved to be both popular with audiences and also a financial success. Michael and his father wanted to plough the revenue made from the film back into Tanzania's national parks and to buy land. 


Instead the then director of the Tanzanian national parks authority asked them to fund the first ever comprehensive animal survey as a means of gaining raw data which could then be used to help protect the area. It was largely Michael's decision to use an aircraft for this. He convinced his father to take flying lessons and finally also to buy his own Dornier. In 1957 they eventually bought their legendary Dornier 27, had it painted with zebra stripes and flew it - as novice pilots - in December 1957 from Frankfurt to the Serengeti.

Michael Grzimek
Michael Grzimek experimenting with a tranquiliser gun (Photo: Okapia)

Michael was not only a natural cameraman but also a born pilot. In the robust Dornier he landed in some of the remotest parts of the Serengeti to survey the vegetation and the environment. He experimented with various methods of counting the large herds in the vast expanse of the Serengeti and was one of the first to try collaring animals before following them from above.


Michael was also instrumental in setting up the first experiments with tranquiliser guns. He and his father modified the first such rifle in order to improve the mechanism and above all the tranquiliser dosage. Michael used his aircraft not only for the herd surveys but also as a universal means of transport for all kinds of emergencies and for travelling to Arusha 200 miles away to buy provisions. At that time, airborne animal surveys were a completely new technique but have since become an established conservation method.


Despite Michael's considerable skills as a pilot and the good handling of his plane, he died tragically during a flight in January 1959. He hit a vulture close to the Sanjan Gorge to the east of the Serengeti. An aerofoil was damaged and Michael lost control of the aircraft. He crashed and was killed instantly. The young father was survived by his wife, two small sons and his distraught father and friend. He was buried on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater and the inscription on his headstone only hints at what he achieved for conservation in Africa in the few short years of his life: "He gave all he possessed for the wildlife of Africa, including his life.“