A Better Future for the Planet Earth

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Professor Markus Borner (Switzerland)

Born in Zurich, Switzerland (April 23, 1945)
Honorary Professor, University of Glasgow
Former Director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society Africa Program
Adjunct Professor at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, Tanzania


Very Active Childhood & Played a Lot with Animals

I was born in Thalwil, a town by Lake Zurich, Switzerland, in 1945. I was very interested in animals and liked to go to the forest and look into little lakes, find tadpoles and watch them turning into frogs. I got interested in reptiles, so I had an iguana and snakes at home. I remember when my mother was sending me out to buy some shoes, I went to a pet shop and instead of shoes I bought a turtle. My snake kept escaping from my hand-made terrarium, which kept my mother away from my room. She was very tolerant, however, and let me follow my interests.

In Thalwil (1949)

In Thalwil (1949)

With his grandfather

With his grandfather

My father was an airline pilot with Swissair and travelled a lot. From my father, I have my love of flying. This led to my learning to fly and spending thousands of hours in a small Frankfurt Zoo Society Cessna in the skies over Africa, from which I saw magnificent scenery and great migrations of wild animals.

My grandfather loved nature and was very encouraging. He took me out and talked to me about plants, frogs and so on. He was very knowledgeable and very supportive of my exploration of nature. I think that my tolerant mother and my nature-loving grandfather had a lot to do with my becoming what I am today.

As a Student

Wanted to learn in nature - Doing fieldwork that was uncommon at the time

I went to school in Thalwil before I entered a college in Zurich. I never really liked school. I didn't like music and French classes, but loved biology and wanted to know everything about the world in the geography class.

I studied marine biology at the University of Zurich; but I didn't want to become an academic stuck in the lab. That was not interesting for me. I wanted to go out into the world and have some real impact on the lives of these animals I was studying. Also because the little animals that I was studying, animals such as the medusa, were just too small, I wanted to study bigger animals. So I did some post graduate work on the roe deer, a relatively small deer living in the mid- to high latitudes on the Eurasian Continent. It was my first study on wild animals. After I graduated, I had a chance to work for World Wildlife Fund International conducting an assessment of Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia in 1972.

Wrote doctoral dissertation on rhinos in Sumatra (Indonesia)

In Sumatra (1973)

In Sumatra (1973)

My experience in Sumatra was amazing. Most of the area where I worked was uncharted. We would spend weeks in untouched natural forest where no human had ever been before, but it wasn't all fun. I remember it raining so hard that the river swelled and we were stuck with no food. My entry in my diary that day was, "This is not an adventure any more. This is just a very difficult situation. Adventure is losing its appeal." It was very hard fieldwork, but I wanted to achieve something, and I wanted to find out what was happening to the Sumatran rhino, why it vanishing so quickly. It was not easy, but it was also a wonderful experience going into this untouched area. For someone like me who loved nature, it was great.

The Sumatran rhino is a very rare species, and I only saw one during the three years of my stay. There are five different rhinos in the world: the African Black Rhino, the African White Rhino, the Indian Rhino, the Javanese Rhino, and the Sumatran Rhino. I am probably the only person in the world having seen all five rhino species in the wild.

Realizing that untouched nature has been lost through human activity

I had a very friendly working relationship with the local people in Sumatra. What really distressed me was the degree of government corruption, which prevented conservation. The government, for example, designated a tract of land as a protected area; but by the next week, they had cut down all the trees in that area. Since I left Sumatra about 40 years ago, 85% of the forests have disappeared. Now Sumatra is a plantation for palm oil. I am shocked that the majority of their beautiful wild forests are gone. I feel that this can happen anywhere in the world, and we must do something about it.

Encounter with Professor Bernhard Grzimek

A job in conservation

I first met Professor Grzimek at the Frankfurt Zoo in 1972, before I left for Sumatra. Professor Grzimek was the director of Frankfurt Zoo at that time. He had won the Academy Award for Best Documentary 1960 for his film, " Serengeti Shall not Die," which introduced the world to the majestic nature of Africa. When I first met him at the zoo, he had such a presence that people would look at him rather than the monkeys or lions.

When I was young, I looked forward to watching Professor Grzimek's TV program, "Help for Wildlife." I had no clue then that I would one day be working for this man. I still cannot believe how lucky I have been.

Professor Grzimek (far right) and Professor Borner (2nd from the left) (1982)

Professor Grzimek (far right) and Professor Borner (2nd from the left) (1982)

At that time, Professor Grzimek had been to Africa countless times to set up a support group for national parks. He promised the government of Tanzania that if it would make Rubondo a national park and provide funding for development, Professor Grzimek and the Frankfurt Zoological Society would provide support for equipment and infrastructure costs. He sent us to Rubondo to help the Tanzanian government build the new national park. This was in 1977, and this became my first work in Africa.

First Experience Working and Living in Africa


In Tanzania, I was in charge of Frankfurt Zoological Society projects and served as an advisor. We were not actually involved in the work on the ground. That is, we did not go out on anti-poaching patrols. That was the job of the government. Our job was to assess what was there, understand what the animals were doing, help with the equipment for the rangers, and build ranger posts, housing and so on.

Animals are not playmates - Learning the rules of nature

At Rubondo Island With Phelix (son) and Sophie (daughter)

At Rubondo Island With Phelix (son) and Sophie (daughter)

Rubondo Island was a remote area, and the living there was quite tough. At that time, we didn't have a plane, so we had to use a boat to leave the island. It took us at least a day to reach the next larger city. We had very few visitors because it was so far from Tanzania, which was not a country that people traveled to anyway, so we were even more isolated. We didn't see anybody except our colleagues, the park warden and his family. There was no gas or electricity, and we only went shopping once every two months or so.

It was risky as well. Back in those days, I did not truly understand how to work with wild animals; and one day, I was attacked by a chimpanzee. Of course, it was my fault. When you talk with other people, you look at them; but among primates eye contact is considered a challenge. I wanted to take a picture and I was looking at them when one attacked me. I was lucky enough to escape, but I can still remember how scared I was. I understood afterwards that wild animals need to be treated with respect and that it was a mistake to see them as I did domesticated animals. When humans have a problem with wild animals, it's inevitably because they fail to realize that they are not pets.

Life in Rubondo Island was quite difficult; but it was beautiful. In front of the house, we had a beach with palm trees and clear water where we could swim, hippos were snorting all night long and beautiful birds and butterflies were all around us. It was a beautiful place to live. When we arrived in Rubondo, my daughter was six months old; and three years later, my son was born. For my children, it was great to grow up stress-free in the wilderness, and they came out with a lot of confidence. I think that growing up in nature was a very good experience for them. Of course, I liked to see friends, go to opera and theater, so we had to give up quite a lot to live on the island for six years; but we thought it as a blessing to live in such a beautiful place.


The Serengeti

Abandoned nature - Seeing the irresponsibility of humankind


In 1983, after spending six years in Rubondo, I moved to Seronera in the Serengeti to organize and expand Serengeti National Park. It was very insecure at that time because the country had just ended a conflict with the neighboring country and had become independent. The country had no budget or facilities, and there was much violence. Poaching was one of the biggest problems. There are two different types of poaching. One is "meat poaching," which is killing wildebeests or zebra for food.

That was not so serious because there were a lot of them compared with other animals. The real problem was what we call "trophy poaching," which is killing elephants for their tusks and rhinos for their horns. This kind of poaching involves international syndicates and big money. The number of elephants in a wildlife sanctuary in southern Tanzania fell from 100,000 to 30,000 in a few years due to poaching. One of the first measures that I took was to make the park rangers more functional. We made sure their salaries were paid, and provided them with uniforms, cars, radios and other basic equipment. We also trained and planned their work, and we encouraged tourists to visit. We included the local communities and asked local residents, the Masais, to be in charge of park management as counterparts.

Serengeti Rhino Re-Patriation Project

When certain rare species are poached, they can vanish completely from an ecosystem. When poachers came through, all of the eastern black rhino were killed except two females in the Serengeti. Luckily, there were a few left in Ngorongoro, about 120 km from the Serengeti. One male could mate with two females, but this would take a long time. In order to increase the existing population at a faster rate, we decided to bring in about 30 eastern black rhinos that were bred in South Africa.


There are very strict guidelines on importing species like this. It must be the same subspecies, and we needed to meet the IUCN standards for species resettlement. Of course, the government and international organizations monitored our activities very carefully as well. It took us nearly four years to complete the very complicated and difficult steps to make this happen. I was in tears when the big transport aircraft carrying the rhinos arrived in the Serengeti. It was a very emotional moment for me.

All the effort we put into the project paid off with the number of rhinos in the Serengeti ecosystem increasing to 120. That is a huge increase from the two females that were left after all the poaching. Of course, we are still hoping to increase the population. This gain can be lost very quickly, however, if the program to protect them is not maintained.

Nature conservation requires cooperative effort

Understanding that people are part of the ecosystem in Africa

My experience has taught me the importance of including a wide range of people to conserve the ecosystem. My first job was to identify and develop potential national parks. At first, I didn't occur to me, but then I realized that people living in the areas were actually part of the region's ecosystem;

Communicating with local tribes and asking for cooperation

With Masais (around 1994)

With Masais (around 1994)

A lot of African beliefs and traditions are based in nature. For example, each tribe has its taboo animals. People from a tribe that has a leopard as a taboo animal are not allowed to kill them. Modern conservation thinking actually fits in very well with African thinking.

Of course, we have to work with the communities and help them understand that they would profit by protecting the wildlife. It's not enough to preach about the importance of nature. We have to show that nature can also help to enhance their well-being.

It is important to include people in the region

We decided to encourage the people in the community to be involved in conservation activities. For example, we decided to give local people ownership of the animals and land in the areas surrounding Serengeti National Park. Before that, they had no rights regarding the animals. Because they had no ownership rights, they were not concerned about poachers. With ownership rights, however, they had a reason to protect the animals from poachers because poachers interfered with their livelihood by killing the animals that attracted tourists.

It is essential to include local people in animal conservation activities. We opened the door to work with the communities, politicians, scientists, and conservation organizations. Sometimes it's the long way around, but for me it's the only way. We have to work together if we want to achieve something with the people around us.

Biggest crisis in my career


Plan for a Highway through Serengeti National Park

In 2011, plans for a highway through the middle of the Serengeti National Park were brought up. The route was from Lake Victoria to northeast Tanzania. The plans had existed for some time but were shelved because of a lack of funding. They were brought up again because of financial support being offered by the German government. The highway would cut across an area where animals passed through. Estimates showed that a lorry would pass by through this area once every two minutes. This area is home to 1.5 million wildebeests and 4,000 zebras, so there would be accidents all the time, accidents that would put both people and wildlife at risk. They planned a fence on the sides of the highway to prevent accidents, but this would cut the wildebeests off from their only source of water in the dry season. In the ecosystem, the wildebeests have an impact on everything. The dung that 1.5 million wildebeests produce every day fertilizes the earth. Because they eat a massive amount of grass, it reduces the risk of natural fires. Because they stomp on young plants during their great migrations, it creates new forests. They also become prey for carnivores.

If their migrations were interrupted by fences along the highway, most of them would die, and this would cause permanent damage to the Serengeti. Sometimes economic growth can contradict environmental conservation. To carry crops from farm to market and connect people, the country would undoubtedly have to build many roads. The problem was that the highway would run through the middle of the park. From the viewpoint of conservation, we were against the plan; but we soon realized that the politicians did not care about what would happen to the area in ten years or twenty years. They only cared about how to win the next election.

Developing approaches to realize both economic growth and nature conservation

We decided to try other approaches. First, we decided to educate people around the world about the Serengeti via the Internet. This would create pressure on the government of Tanzania from the leaders of other countries. Second, we surveyed the number and location of people, companies, farmland, and facilities around Serengeti National Park, and were able to show that not many of the people in this area would benefit by the highway the government planned to build. The planned route would go through Masais land; however, because these people raised cattle and sheep rather than crops, and they were not hunters, the highway would be of little or no benefit at all. We informed the government that if they instead built a road to the south, which would be close to the farmland, it would benefit the local people by providing a better way to transport their crops to market and by making it easier for their children to go to school. This route was more financially efficient and would actually benefit the people voting for the politicians. It was a struggle, but we won; and the government promised to build the highway around the national park to the south. In addition, the government of Tanzania also created 16 national parks, and designated lots of national land as conservation areas. It is wonderful that the government became supportive.

For now, we prevailed, but the government has been very slow in implementing the plan. If the southern road is not being built, then this whole problem might come up again. We need to push the German government to carry out the plan swiftly. We cannot wait another three to five years.

I'm not just working with animals, but as a conservationist, I sometimes have to deal with economic concerns and political matters, during which I use other means as well to win battles for conservation. From this perspective, I am involved in a wider range of nature conservation activities than other scientists generally are.

To keep this beautiful earth as it is

I can only talk from the viewpoint of the Serengeti, but the biggest future threats are population growth and climate change. I believe, though, that these are the biggest threat not only to Serengeti but also to the entire planet. It is predicted that Africa will have 2 billion people by the middle of the century, and these protected areas can vanish very quickly as people demand more living space. If we do not get population growth under control, we will all suffer as our resources are depleted. Climate change can mean the end of the Serengeti because any change in the rain patterns disturbs the migration of animals. If the animals cannot migrate and find water in dry season, they will all die.


It is important for us to have a few areas in this world where we see how the natural ecosystem is functioning without the impact of human activity. We must leave some areas so that we can investigate how dynamic natural ecosystems function. For me, national parks with strict protections are yardsticks by which we can measure what is changing in the world; and I think it is also important for our well-being that we have dynamic ecosystems so that we can find perfection for our souls. Keeping untouched nature around us means that we still have some areas where we can be who we are. What should we do? Everybody can contribute to conservation. For example, we should not leave water running while brushing our teeth. We need such cooperation on a daily basis. We have to face quite a lot of problems, problems such as population growth, climate change, and indiscriminate development; but I'm still hopeful. We have fewer and fewer wild places, but I think those wild places will become more valuable. People will value them a lot more when they are rare, and I think that's our chance to keep at least some of the most fantastic jewels we have in nature alive for the future.

Three years ago, I retired from the Frankfurt Zoological Society after 40 years, and since then I work mostly with the University of Glasgow. I've gone back to my roots and have been working with the African wild dog project, and another project for the counting of wildebeests and zebras. Mainly, though, my interest today is to try to provide better education to young Tanzanians. There will be a lot of problems coming to the Serengeti. If we give Tanzanians education that comes up to the best international standards, they can stand up to solve problems to protect it. My focus, therefore, is education for the younger generation because I believe that only education can bring stability to the future.

(This interview summary was created by the Japan International Broadcasting Inc. that produces Blue Planet Prize TV programs.)

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