Story of Zimmerman, big game and plastic bag

In the last 40 years, environmentalists and conservationists have won two major victories in Kenya. Both surprised the world.

In May 1977, Kenya surprised the conservation world when it banned all legal hunting of wildlife to stem the growing poaching menace. And that is how the world-famous Zimmerman taxidermy factory died.

Its land later became Nairobi’s Zimmerman Estate and I shall come back to that later.

Last week, environmentalists and conservationists won yet another victory after the government finally banned the use of plastic bags.

We have just witnessed the death of the shopping bag.

Already, shops are awash with Chinese made non-woven fabric bags – which might restrict the emergence of our own paper-bag cottage industries.

SUFFOCATE

The battle to stop the use of plastic bags has been fought for long with conservationists – more than anyone else – on the front line.

Marine experts have for many years complained that plastic bags suffocate both marine and wildlife which mistake plastics for food.

And because they are indigestible mass, they can block the digestive track and the animals die of starvation. For instance, turtles have been reported to swallow plastic bags, mistaking them for jelly fish. 

Habib El-Habr, an expert on marine litter working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi told Reuters last week that these plastics “take between 500 to 1,000 years to break down” and that they also enter the human food chain through fish and other animals.

And that has been noticed in various Nairobi slaughter-houses where some animals had as much as 20 plastic bags removed from their stomachs.

RWANDA

But the worry was that most of these plastic bags were finding their way to lakes and oceans and UNEP experts are worried that if the trend is not stopped “by 2050, we will have more plastics in the ocean than fish.” And that is how Habib El-Habr puts it.

Nobody seems to have a figure on the number of plastic bags strewn around  but Rwanda’s Kigali City of  about 900,000 people gave a pointer a few years ago when about 1 million bags were collected during a clean-up that preceded the ban.

Today, Rwanda is counted as one of the cleanest countries in the world and does not allow import or manufacture of these polythene bags within its borders.

The plastics are known to clog the city’s drainage system and are now blamed for the floods that killed thousands of people in Bangladesh between 1988 and 1998.

CHEAP AND CONVENIENT

Apparently, the floods submerged two-thirds of the country in water and in 2002, the country became the first in the world to ban the use of plastic bags – and that is despite the fact that they had for years been regarded as a cheap and convenient way to carry groceries. It is the ultimate shopping bag.

What became a nightmare started in the 1960s when a certain Swedish company by the name Celloplast obtained a US patent for what is christened as “the T-shirt plastic bag”.

While plastics had been used since late 1800, the idea of a plastic bag did not get approval until 1960s when it sought to replace the brown paper bags.

The man behind the plastic bag invention was Engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin, who discovered that one could actually make a bag using polythene.

That is how Celloplast became a global monopoly for ages for plastic bags until 1977 when a US company, Mobil, went to court and overturned that patent allowing many other players to enter the market. That is what led to the plastic bag environmental disaster that we have today – as Celloplast lost its market to a free for all industry.

1 TRILLION

Today, an estimated 1 trillion plastic bags are produced annually and dumped in seas, oceans and on the land.

In Kenya, the plastic bags emerged in large-scale in mid 1980s when the supermarket chains introduced them to compete with the brown paper bags used to carry groceries.

As early as 2004 the menace had been noted in major waterways as heaps and then assistant minister Moses Wetang’ula had called for a ban.

He had apparently visited Venezuela where he found that the country was developing its forest sector by banning the plastic bags.

PARLIAMENT

“We must encourage the use of forest products like pulp and paper for packaging , and ban the use of plastic sheeting for whatever reason within this country,” he said.

In 2007, the matter was discussed in Parliament and the government had promised to ban certain types of plastic bags but this was not done after some MPs asked the Minister for Environment and Natural Resources “to be more creative than merely in banning”.

They suggested that the best way forward was to put a levy and use it to collect the waste.

In 2008, another MP, Charles Kilonzo, brought a Motion to Parliament seeking the introduction of a law to regulate the production, distribution, consumption, recycling and disposal of plastics.

His idea was that without a proper law, plastic bags were being produced from non-renewable material. “This situation is very pathetic. When you go to virtually all urban centres and cities, the situation is terrible,” he told Parliament.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Before the ban, the Greenbelt Movement estimated that 24 million plastic bags were used monthly in Kenya and ended up in the solid waste system, thus creating the biggest challenge to efforts to clean up towns, cities and rivers.

It was Greenbelt founder, the late Prof Wangari Maathai who started the local campaign to ban the use of plastic bags after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

In her 2007 address to Parliament, perturbed that a ban was not in sight, Prof Maathai described the “flimsy plastic bags” as a “menace” to the environment.

The plastic ban came as a surprise – just as 40 years ago when Kenya managed to ban on hunting of wildlife. And that is where the story of Zimmerman starts. It shows what happens when a national ban was effected.

LARGEST COMPANY

Some few years back, I met one of the last taxidermists at the Zimmermann Limited which was before 1977 the second largest taxidermy companies in the world located in the plain of Kamiti in what is now Zimmermann Estate.

Apparently, Tim Nicklin had invited me to his Runda house to listen to the story of this firm which was making hunting-trophies from dead animals for display.

By then, there was no relationship between stuffed animals for sale and conservation and taxidermists earned a fortune from this trade.

The ban pushed what was once a multi-billion shilling trade out of business. Whether it saved our wildlife is open to discussion

The only evidence of the life-like stuffed animals can be found in exclusive golf clubs, some hotels, the National Museums of  Kenya, State House and in some Nairobi homes. All these were the product of the defunct Zimmermann Ltd which was founded by a German taxidermist Paul Carl Zimmerman.

HUNTING

Efforts to ban hunting, which was leading to extermination of wildlife, was a global effort led by conservationist worried that some African nations were on the verge of killing the tourism industry which was pegged on wildlife Safari.

It was also a campaign that sought to end the era of big game hunters – among them former US President Theodore Roosevelt – who had made millions of dollars selling ivory and animal skins in western capitals and museums and which had now reached a level of economic sabotage.

Originally, according to some records, Zimmermann – or Bwana Simama to his workers – had come to research for a German University, fell in love with Kenya and started Zimmermann’s Ltd (Taxidermy) in 1929.

He built his firm next to River Ruaraka and he also built a leather tanning factory therein which for years was known because of its signature obnoxious smell.

With big game hunting, Zimmerman Ltd supplied stuffed animals to homes of Kings, Queens and Presidents, world museums and private galleries. There were various animal trophies. It is now known that in 1970s the company worked for Ferdinand Marcos Natural History museum in Philippines.

VIRTUALLY EVERYTHING

Records also show that Zimmerman used to make various trophies and there were full-size mounts of large mammals like lions, kudus, giraffes, displayed from neck up, rugs of Zebras and other animals and elephant tusks.

Tim also told me that they used to make beer bottle-openers from warthog tusks, handbags from elephant ears, stools from elephant’s rear-feet, bracelets from the hair on elephant tails and pendants from lion claws.

“We were the second largest taxidermy company after the Jonas Brothers of Denver Colorado,” recalled Tim who estimated they had a workforce of about 100. “We used to mount an average of 30 heads a day and two to three fully mounted animals.”

And they did virtually everything any enthusiast ordered: “We have even turned buffalo scrotums into tobacco pouches with zippers,” one of its general managers, Peter Wain told Los Angeles Times in 1973.

SUSTAINABLE TRADE

“The only people I talk out of work here is the old duck who wants her pet Alsatian mounted…. For heaven’s sake, after enjoying the pet for 22 years, you don’t want it stuffed in a corner of the room. That’s bizarre as far as I am concerned.”

Had taxidermy grown, and had there been structured hunting of wildlife, this would have become a huge sustainable trade. But it was more of an art.

Actually in 1969, Ken Kertell, a director at Zimmerman, told Associated Press that Taxidermy is an art. “You can’t put a dead animal on a conveyor belt and wait for it to come out the other end as a lifelike model. Everything has to be done by hand,” he said.

But the art and the hunting – and just like the plastic bag – has to come to an end thanks to the push by environmentalists and conservationists.

In 1977, after 33 years of raving success, Zimmermann’s Ltd was given months to close shop following the ban.

It is the same scenario that is being repeated in the plastic bag industry which has to reconfigure the way it does business.

CLOSED SHOP

When the government banned hunting, it ordered all licensed hunters to turn in their weapons to the Central Firearms Bureau. Right now, NEMA officials are going round factories taking stock of what is left for destruction.  They had been given six months to sell the stock – and some of them had hoped that the ban would be rescinded.

It will not be the first time that retail and wholesale shops will be closed as a result of the ban.

In 1977, hundreds of curio stores in Nairobi that were sustained by the Zimmerman factory selling elephant-hair bracelets, carved-ivory statues, rhino horn carvings and restaurants selling fresh impala chops were also ordered to stop the trade. This led to a boom on carvings which replaced the animal products.

It was in December 1977 that Zimmermann finally closed shop and it earned some space in the New York Times as 298 curio shops closed in a day. 

The plastic bag ban has also been hailed as the toughest in the world since it imposes a hefty fine.

It is a triumph that the environmentalists and conservationists do not take simply. For the hunting, and the plastic bag indeed hurt the wildlife and our environment.

  Twitter: @johnkamau1

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