German who made a name in Nairobi

Zimmerman estate in Nairobi was built on the grounds previously used by Zimmerman Ltd, the taxidermy factory built in 1929 by German Karl Fritz Paul Zimmerman to make hunting trophies. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Of all those who made millions of dollars from Kenya’s wildlife, Zimmerman, or Bwana Simama to his workers, was in a class of his own

How did a Nairobi estate, Zimmerman, acquire a German name?

On April 12, 1971, at the Nairobi Hospital, Karl Fritz Paul Zimmerman finally succumbed to diabetes. For a man who had built the second largest taxidermy factory in the northern plains of Nairobi, his death was also a big blow to the art of making hunting trophies.

Zimmerman Ltd was internationally known. Almost all the animals mounted for display in old Kenyan hotels, at State House Nairobi, and in many clubs originated from the factory. Today, Nairobi’s Zimmerman Estate stands on the same grounds that the company made its name before the national ban on hunting in 1977 deprived it of animals.

One of its last projects was the mounting of Ahmed, the Marsabit elephant that had been protected by a presidential decree and which still stands at the National Museums of Kenya’s exhibition gallery.

Very little is known about Zimmerman. His is the story of Kenya as the destination of big-game hunters and how they made capital out of the country’s wildlife. Of all those who made millions of dollars making trophies, Zimmerman, or Bwana Simama to his workers, was in a class of his own.

Kenya had been attracting some of the largest game hunting safaris, some of them sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute. Among the biggest collectors remained former US President, Theodore Roosevelt.

Zimmerman was initially not part of the game-hunting millionaires. He had arrived in Kenya as part of a zoology research team sent by a German university. He not only fell in love with Kenya but returned in 1929 to found Zimmerman Ltd (Taxidermy).

To start his company, he acquired land next to River Ruaraka, where he also built a leather tanning factory. At that time, it was far from Nairobi and the obnoxious smell from the tannery would bother no one.

As big game hunting prospered during the colonial period, Zimmerman Ltd fed the insatiable appetite of princesses, kings, queens, presidents, and museums. It was one of the country’s main exports, apart from coffee and tea. Private galleries would snap up animal trophies as they rolled out of the factory. Every week truckloads of dead animals would be offloaded at Zimmerman.

In the 1970s, Phillipines President Ferdinard Marcos gave Zimmerman Ltd a huge order to make mounted animals for museums in his country.

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

Zimmerman also made beer bottle-openers from warthog tusks, handbags from elephant ears, stools from elephant rear feet, bracelets from the hair on elephant tails, and pendants from lion claws.

They did 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.

By then the company was doing taxidermy work for more than 400 safaris a year, according to records.

“We were the second largest taxidermy company after the Jonas Brothers of Denver, Colorado,” recalled one of Zimmerman’s workers, Tim Nicklin, in a recent interview. Tim 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.”

A lot of these were lions, wildebeests, and buffaloes.

At times, some American taxidermists would ask Zimmerman to do the tanning and ship the skins to the US for mounting, while others would have all the work done in Kenya.

The Italians, for instance, were in love with buffaloes. “They have a thing about buffalo. I don’t know if it’s because they are effeminate and they want to show their manhood,” Mr Wain once told Associated Press.

“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.”

In 1969, Ken Kertell, a director at Zimmerman Ltd told Associated Press: “Taxidermy is an art you see. 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.”

And Zimmerman Ltd managers did not hide the fact that they were after dollars. Kertell once said: “We are not in this for fun. We are in it for money. But I don’t want you to get the impression we’re in the slaughter trade. We don’t look at it that way.”

In 1977, after 33 years of raving success, Zimmerman Ltd was given months to close shop following the ban on hunting. The government also ordered all licensed hunters to turn in their weapons to the Central Firearms Bureau.

It was the end of Zimmerman Ltd. And on its ground is today’s Zimmerman Estate.