MUSTS Colloquium with Bernhard Gissibl: Decolonization and the Sciences of Wildlife

Wednesday, March 15 2017, 15:30-17:00, in the Attic (Grote Gracht 80-82, Maastricht)


Decolonization and the Sciences of Wildlife – The Making of the Serengeti Research Institute

While the considerable involvement of Western conservationists in late colonial and early independence East Africa has already received much scholarly attention, surprisingly little research has been done on the one Institute created to put wildlife conservation across Eastern Africa upon a solid scientific footing: the Serengeti Research Institute.

Drawing upon previously unused archive material, the paper will situate the launch of the Serengeti Research Project in the broader international “conservation crusade” (Curry-Lindahl) undertaken by Western conservationists in the years of decolonization in East Africa. It will highlight the considerable, yet often overlooked West German involvement in the making of the Institute, and it will elaborate how scientific and conservation celebrities coalesced with Western-based scientific foundations and governments to turn the Serengeti Research Institute into a field station of international visibility beyond the control of postcolonial Tanzanian authorities. It will also be analysed how the Institute served as a contact zone for different and at times rivalling approaches to the study of wild animals: Contemporary scientific luminaries like Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, or Jacques Verschuren were engaged in year-long debate about the purpose of the Institute and the relationship between animal sciences and park management. For years, wildlife research at the Institute was torn between a more theoretically informed strand of German-style behavior physiology and an understanding of ethology as an applied science, as championed by Nikolas Tinbergen and his Oxford networks.

In the same years that human inhabitants continued to be resettled at the park’s fringes, the ecological and ethological knowledge produced within its borders provided important orientation for the management of the Serengeti National Park and achieved broader significance for the management of tropical grassland ecosystems at large.


Bernhard Gissibl is a permanent Research Associate at the Leibniz-Institute of European History in Mainz, Germany. His PhD dissertation has analyzed the origins of Tanzania’s wildlife conservation regime in the decades of German colonial rule prior to the First World War. His research interests include global and imperial environmental history and international journalism. Publications include Civilizing Nature. National Parks in Global Historical Perspective (New York/Oxford 2012, co-edited with Patrick Kupper and Sabine Höhler), The Nature of German Imperialism. Conservation and the Politics of Wildlife in colonial East Africa (New York/Oxford 2016) and Bessere Welten. Kosmopolitismus in den Geschichtswissenschaften (Frankfurt/New York 2017, co-edited with Isabella Löhr)