Bernhard Grzimek was a renowned German zoo director, zoologist, author, editor, and dedicated conservationist. His life’s work left an indelible mark on postwar West Germany and the global conservation movement.
Early Years and Education
Born on 24th April 1909 in Neisse (Nysa), Prussian Silesia, Bernhard Grzimek was the son of Paul Franz Constantin Grzimek, a lawyer and civil law notary, and Margarete Margot Wanke. He embarked on his educational journey by studying veterinary medicine in 1928, initially in Leipzig and later in Berlin, where he obtained his doctorate in 1933. In 1930, he married Hildegard Prüfer, and the couple had three sons: Rochus, Michael, and an adopted son, Thomas.
World War II and Aftermath
During World War II, Grzimek served as a veterinarian in the Wehrmacht and worked for the Reichsernährungsministerium (Food Ministry of the Third Reich) in Berlin. His courageous act of supplying food to hidden Jews led to Gestapo raids on his Berlin apartment in early 1945.
Fleeing to Frankfurt, occupied by the U.S. Army, Grzimek was appointed police chief but declined the position. In 1947, he was accused of NSDAP (Nazi Party) membership, which he denied, resulting in his removal from the Frankfurt Zoo and a denazification process. Eventually, he was reinstated but faced a fine due to his NSDAP candidacy.
Zoo Director and Conservationist
Bernhard Grzimek’s most notable achievement came as the director of the Frankfurt Zoological Garden, a position he assumed on 1st May 1945. Despite the zoo’s devastation and dwindling animal population, he prevented its permanent closure and turned it into one of Germany’s largest zoological gardens. His charismatic leadership, coupled with events and attractions, endeared the zoo to the public and secured the necessary approvals to keep it open.
Grzimek also served as the president of the Frankfurt Zoological Society for over forty years. This society, akin to counterparts in London and New York, spearheaded wildlife conservation projects in Germany and abroad. Their most renowned project remains the Serengeti ecosystem conservation efforts in Tanzania, East Africa.
In 1954, he founded the image agency Okapia, specializing in science, animals, and nature, which is now led by his grandson, Christian Bernhard Grzimek.
Bernhard Grzimek’s Death
Bernhard Grzimek passed away in Frankfurt am Main in 1987 while attending a circus performance with a group of children. Per his wishes, his ashes were transported to Tanzania and interred alongside his son Michael at the Ngorongoro Crater. His dedication to conservation, writing, and advocacy continues to inspire future generations to protect and preserve our natural world.
Bernhard Grzimek’s significant contributions also include editing and writing articles for “Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia.” This monumental encyclopedia of animal life was published in 13 volumes and became a standard reference work. His clear, compelling prose, abundant illustrations, and deep concern for animal conservation continue to inspire and educate future generations of wildlife enthusiasts.
Bernhard Grzimek’s impact on the world of conservation and zoology remains profound, underscoring the importance of preserving our planet’s diverse ecosystems and the creatures that inhabit them.