Thomas Lekan

Thomas Lekan, Associate professor of History , University of South Carolina


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Saving the Serengeti: Tourism, the Cold War, and the Paradox of German Nature Conservation in Postcolonial Africa, 1950-1985

I am pursuing a transnational study of post-World War II European nature conservation in a global context of decolonization, the Cold War, mass tourism, and new media representations of nature that offers critical insights for our contemporary debates about sustainable development, ecotourism, and environmental justice.  My book manuscript, Saving the Serengeti: Tourism, the Cold War, and the Paradox of German Nature Conservation in Postcolonial Africa, 1950-1985, investigates the blind spots and unintended consequences of German and European wildlife conservation and nature tourism after World War II.  By examining the popular-science publications, documentary films, television programs, and conservation campaigns of the Zoological Society and its charismatic leader, media star Bernhard Grzimek, from the 1950s through the 1980s, Saving the Serengeti offers a critical lens for analyzing how the unresolved longings of Germany’s short colonial period, the tensions of decolonization and the Cold War, and the rise of West Germans as the “world champions of travel” after 1960 shaped West German environmental politics at home and abroad in the decades between the Nazis and the Greens.  Grzimek transformed the Society from a small band of animal lovers into one of the most important NGOs in global conservation by convincing Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere to set aside vast swathes of territory as national parks, including several game reserves first imposed by colonial administrators in German East Africa.  Through these efforts, Grzimek saved the habitat of millions of endangered wild animals and created an income stream for newly independent African nations, yet the transformation of the Serengeti and other reserves into national parks came at a price: the dislocation of Maasai pastoralists, increasing tension between farmers and wild animals along park borders, the loss of vernacular environmental knowledge critical to grassland ungulates, and a tendency for affluent Western tourists to “love nature to death.”

Paper Abstract for the EH Conference, University of Washington 2012

“Provincializing Ecology: From Wild Spaces to Hybrid Landscapes in Postcolonial Environmental Studies”

This paper offers a critical genealogy of environmental history as it has emerged in North America and Europe in the past four decades, focusing especially on the implications of postcolonial studies for the way in which historians and other scholars interested in “post-humanism” use “ecology” as a conceptual and methodological tool. I analyze briefly key debates in the field that illustrate how early manifestos from the 1970s, which called for an ecological approach to history based on cybernetic and structuralist models from the natural sciences, gave way in the 1990s to thick descriptions of “hybrid landscapes” in which both human and non-human nature were always already contingent and historicized.

The paper focuses especially on recent debates over the fate of the Serengeti National Park, particularly the 2010 decision by the government of Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete to build a paved road through the park near the Kenyan border. This case study illustrates the way in which postcolonial systems of power, social identities, and cultural discourses shaped modern understandings of “nature” and catalyzed environmental movements in the twentieth century. Of the major non-governmental organizations (NGOs) protesting the government’s action, none was more vocal than the Frankfurt Zoological Society, whose former director, West German television star, filmmaker, and former federal conservation minister Bernhard Grzimek, had drawn the world’s attention to the plight of East Africa’s dwindling wildlife in his 1959 Oscar-winning documentary Serengeti Shall Not Die. Here I examine Grzimek’s contested legacy in East Africa, particularly his belief that “rhinos belong to everybody,” a universalist claim that served to delegitimize the customary land use and led to the dislocation of thousands of Maasai pastoralists whose activities had actually created the grasslands that sustained rather than endangered the large mammals in the savannas. With this case study, I show how postcolonial theories, particularly Gayatri Spivak’s concept of “epistemic violence,” have rendered Western “ecology” itself suspect as an epistemological foundation for environmental history and, indeed, for the humanities more broadly. Such theories lay bare the tensions between nature conservation and indigenous peoples in the in the Global South, where applied ecology has until recently sought to colonize and displace vernacular forms of environmental knowledge in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Though ecology contributed to leveling humanity’s place within the rest of nature in Western thought, a post-humanist history of hybrid landscapes must take the “provincializing” of ecology as an object of analysis, rather than its starting point.