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“The most exciting stories” – On the passing of filmmaker Alan Root

On Saturday, August 26th, 2017, the nature filmmaker Alan Root died at the age of 80. Frankfurt Zoological Society is deeply saddened by his passing and our heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends. A number of our staff had the pleasure to meet Alan Root personally. FZS Executive Director Dr Christof Schenck and FZS Regional Coordinator Dr Karen Laurenson remember Alan Root as a fascinating character and a true conservationist.

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Alan Root (right) with Bernhard Grzimek in Serengeti. Photo: Okapia
Dr. Christof Schenck, Executive Director:
“Frankfurt Zoological Society’s ties with Alan reach back almost 60 years. Bernhard Grzimek, director of the Frankfurt Zoo after World War II and key driver of Frankfurt Zoological Society’s new conservation efforts, hired the young man to complete his academy award-winning masterpiece ‘Serengeti shall not die’ after his son Michael tragically died in a plane crash. Following this head-start, Alan went on to become an outstanding and one of the most successful nature filmmakers, taking the genre to a whole new level. Drawing on his great knowledge about animals and their behaviour, his experiences of decades of life and work in the African wilderness, Alan was an exceptional storyteller, in picture and in text. And he used the fascination of the viewers with animals on screen for his fight for their protection.

I only once met Alan outside of Serengeti, on the occasion of the former FZS Africa Director Markus Borner’s farewell in Frankfurt, Germany. In all other instances, I met him in Serengeti, at very remote filming camps, always perfectly equipped and set-up in the most scenic and wild places. Alan would give us directions describing specific acacia trees. At camp, there would be a library, a communications tent with computers and screens and always various animal inhabitants. On other instances, a hum in the air would announce his arrival, when he landed his helicopter, which he flew till old age, next to the FZS office in Seronera. Wherever we met, it was always clear what was to follow: We would hear the most exciting stories, sometimes about severe accidents or escaping life-threatening animal attacks, and then long discussions about how to save the magnificent landscapes and animal worlds of Africa.

Alan leaves behind his family and an outstanding cinematic legacy.”
Alan Root speaks at Markus Borner's farewell in Frankfurt. Photo: Norbert Guthier
Dr. Karen Laurenson, Regional Coordinator:
“There was always a sense of excitement when Alan ‘threatened’ to turn up in Serengeti. There were many stories to be told and laughter to be had as he sat on the FZS veranda. Alan was an amazing raconteur and could hilariously impersonate many of his friends and foes and, as a larger than life character, he had many of both. And of course, had got himself into so many scrapes over the years, so there was no shortage of material. He often swooped in on his helicopter, which inevitably rather impressed our very small daughters at the time, when it landed next to the veranda. To this day, they both still remember the time he generously took them for a short flight, hovering over the house and the local buffalos and the hippos in the river. That was very cool.

Most of all I remember and have the greatest respect for his gems of wisdom about Africa, Serengeti and the natural world. Although not a trained scientist, he knew more about natural history than anyone else I have met, and brought alive the small organisms and small details that made up the web of life in the Serengeti and its dynamics. Whether ant lion or aardvark, zebras or zorillas, he could share some nugget of information that was gleaned from personal observation. Alan had been in Serengeti for some 60 years, so was its oral history of the characters in the modern era. He wove stories of the old timers in the Serengeti folklore who were otherwise often mythical figures to many of us: Bernhard and Michael Grzimek, Julius Nyerere, Miles Turner, he had been there and known them.

Alan was the most fantastic dad to his boys and gave them an unusual and privileged upbringing. It was wonderful that, even relatively late in life, he had the chance to find his wife Fran and for them to be extraordinary parents, a role he had longed for over many years.”