A Conversation with Manfred Niekisch, Retired Director of the Frankfurt Zoo

The Frankfurt Zoological Society has been a leader in zoological conservation since the work of the legendary Berhnard Grzimek in the Serengeti ecosystem. However, by 2008, it was decided the zoo of its name needed to better reflect this mission and become more modern. Dr. Manfred Niekisch was brought in as Director of the Frankfurt Zoo to modernize the zoo and has done an exceptional job at it. Here is his story.

@ Zoo Frankfurt

Niekisch’s background was in field conservation. After spending time working the ferdal agency for economics and forestry, he began to work with World Wildlife Fund to fight illegal wildlife trafficking. “In reality, World Wildlife Fund was my first professional job in conservation,” he recalled. “I began working in conservation at the local level and became more international with my work in societies. This was when WWF started traffic and they wanted to get this traffic office started. They first asked me to rewrite the manual for German customs and employed me as director of Traffic Germany in September 1983. [My office] focused on international wildlife trade trafficking. After going to see where these illegal animals came from, I realized that would not be enough so I started to set up a rainforest programing focusing more on ecosystems and the people behind the illegal wildlife trade. I had seen in Indonesia these poor farmers we consider bad guys were driven away from their homeland and had no other choice but to either die of starvation or go into the illegal wildlife trade.”

@ Zoo Frankfurt

In 1989, Manfred Niekisch started the Tropic Rainforest Foundation from scratch to prevent disadvantaged farmers from going into the wildlife trade. “I had to develop the philosophy and everything,” he stated. “My approach was let’s try the other way around- we set up a small organization called Oro Garde (Spanish for Green Gold.) It helped local initiatives in home countries do rainforest conservation. They needed money, political support and maybe a little technical advise, not Germany showing them how to do things.” Most of the organization’s projects were in South America. The foundation supported projects done by local people to help the rainforests. The organization still runs today.

@ Zoo Frankfurt

While servicing as a professor for international conservation at a university, Niekisch was recruited to lead a renaissance at the Frankfurt Zoo. He had already worked with the Frankfurt Zoological Society on a campaign against sea turtle soup and idolized their former director Bernhard Grzimek. “I already had close connections to Frankfurt Zoo because of my engagement in NGOs,” he explained. “The zoo wanted to regive itself the image of a nature species conservation center. In 2008, the City of Frankfurt and called me the post, fulfilling the dream I had as a child [of being like Bernard Grzimek.] I could really use the zoo as a platform for conservation measures.”

Winfred Faust @ Zoo Frankfurt

“The zoo was a very traditional zoo [when I came in,]” Manfred Niekisch stated. “The zoo had a very good reputation but had lost some of the image given by Bernard Grzimek. For twenty years starting in the 1970s, they thought about building a major big zoo outside of Frankfurt so they stopped doing development at the zoo. Many of the buildings were outdated because nothing had been invested in twenty years. I said we just stay with this city zoo- it’s perfectly located and we’ll develop the strengths of the city zoo. Only then was a big investment started. The city wanted to make the zoo more attractive and have me develop the zoo into a center for nature conservation. The city council gave me 30 million euros just for innovation- new buildings.”

@ Zoo Frankfurt

One of the first changes Niekisch did was he completely redid the zoo’s entrance. “The old one was bad for people at the cashier and the visitors,” he remarked. “We built a completely new entrance area giving the zoo the possibility to separate the entrance from the theater and the zoo.” The new entrance was much more elaborate and conducive to visitor’s needs. It also included a new bear habitat. “Before we had sloth bears and sun bears in old, uncomfortable enclosures and they had to go off exhibit in the winter,” Niekisch added. “We decided to build a new bear habitat with spectacled bears from the Andes. These are bears which can be kept outside the whole year round.”

Rolf Walther @ Zoo Frankfurt

Detlef Mobius @ Zoo Frankfurt

Another major change was doing a completely new quarantine facility. “Frankfurt did not have a proper quarantine so we build what I consider the most modern quarantine in the whole of Europe,” Manfred Niekisch proudly commented. Even though it is “nothing attractive to the visitors,” the facility was important since the zoo gets “a lot of animals confiscated at Frankfurt airport.” The zoo’s next major project will be a new penguin habitat that is currently under construction. In December 2017, Neikisch retired from the Frankfurt Zoo after helping put together a master plan calling for a new African area. “The house for giraffes is completely outdated, as is the baboon enclosure," Niekisch commented. "The hippo and rhino area is too small to be good. All this we want to change in the future.”

Winfred Faust @ Zoo Frankfurt

Marlies Thieme @ Zoo Frankfurt

Niekisch has helped refocus the Frankfurt Zoo on conservation and restore the legacy left by Bernhard Grzimek. The zoo has worked more collaboratively with the Frankfurt Zoological Society, its conservation arm. “The Frankfort Zoological Society disappeared during the first World War but was restarted in the 1950s when Bernhard Grzimek couldn’t support his conservation initiatives in the Serengeti with city money,” Niekisch explained. “It became one big zoological society. We always wanted to focus more on conservation so we’re working very actively together with the society and the zoo is a platform for FZS. For example, the reintroduction of golden lion tamarins was done in cooperation between the zoo and the society.”

@ Zoo Frankfurt

One of the ways the Frankfurt Zoo did this was by putting together “a completely new information system for visitors informing them about the status of the wild kin of our zoo animals and how they are ambassadors for their species.” The Frankfurt Zoo’s conservation approach is on long-lasting projects rather than short-term ones. “Not only do we continue the work Bernhard Grzimek did in the Serengeti but have developed major projects in Salu, Manu Peru, Selous and Luangwa,” Niekisch said. “All these projects are done in support of the authorities and give the rangers modern equipment. We’ve put more and more emphasis on combating poaching and have three airplanes from the German government specialized in fighting poaching.”

@ Zoo Frankfurt

Manfred Niekisch and his staff have implemented conservation messages throughout the zoo’s exhibits and buildings. “Our philosophy is the visitors should first see and enjoy the animals, then learn,” he remarked. “In the new ape house, there’s a monitor where you can see how orangutans are hurt in the palm oil trade. We have a huge map of Sumatra showing the forest destruction over the past fifty years. We have a lock showing the decease of gorillas, orangutans and bonobos.”

@ Zoo Frankfurt

While the Ape House was already being built when Niekisch came to the zoo, he implemented a stronger focus on the threats great apes face. The building represented a turn in the quality of the zoo’s exhibitry. “The old ape house was really old and outdated- all Roman Bath architecture,” Niekisch noted. “It was too small for all these animals so we built a very big ape house. It is so large it turns out to be a little small for all the visitors coming in. For each of the species, we have two inside enclosures and one outside habitat that can all be put together. That gives us lots of flexibility. For good management of apes, you need the possibility to shift them out so you can go into the enclosures, clean them and renovate the trees for climbing. We have an excellent team of ape keepers who have a worldwide reputation and get asked a lot of questions on conservation. We’re breeding all three species [gorillas, orangutans and bonobos] and that’s been very successful.”

@ Zoo Frankfurt

“What I’m proud of is we really managed to change the whole aspect of the zoo,” Manfred Niekisch reflected. “It’s a lot more visitor friendly now. We did a lot of work on 24 Hours, where we keep our nocturnal animals. When the house was built in the 1970s, they thought nocturnal animals didn’t need outdoor enclosures but they do like to sit in the sun even when they’re not active. We built some outdoor habitats and gave more space for the species we keeper. We even mix some together like aardvarks and busbhabies.”The Frankfurt Zoo has also remained on the cutting edge of animal welfare. “I think animal welfare issues are the basis for everything,” Niekisch stated. “You can’t talk about conservation or transmit conservation messages if you don’t keep animals in the best possible conditions. We have two full-time veterinarians at the zoo and train our keepers in welfare issues. We know a lot more now than ever about the importance and possibilities of behavioral enrichment. I appointed an animal welfare and behavioral enrichment advisor who transmits the latest knowledge to the whole zoo.”

@ Zoo Frankfurt

Besides being the Director of the Frankfurt Zoo, Niekisch simultaneously served as Vice President of the Frankfurt Zoological Society. “Nowhere does it say the zoo director has to be vice president,” he noted. “When I talk as VP, we’re motivating and making important decisions about funding. We work closely with NGOs, who are much more flexible than I am. The society runs our nature ambassador program, which I really like. They have nature booths [throughout the zoo] on different topics and inform visitors about nature. My keepers couldn’t do that and keeper talks aren’t enough. We asked Frankfurt Zoological Society to formally run the project and employ the staff. As a city run zoo, we have to go through administrative processes to employ people while the society can hire people as needed.”

@ Zoo Frankfurt

@ Zoo Frankfurt

“I thank zoos are becoming more important every day,” Manfred Niekisch reflected. “As I’m also the Chair of the Conservation Committee for WAZA, I’m very pleased to see nature conservation has become the most important focus of zoo work. I think many people only have the chance to see a bit of nature in zoos so we must use them to transmit conservation messages. Zoos need to cooperate with NGOs specializing in field conservation. You need reliable work on the ground. I would like to see that conservation focus remain at Frankfurt Zoo.”

@ Zoo Frankfurt

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti