Ernst Schäfer (14 March 1910 – 21 July 1992) was an explorer, hunter and zoologist in the 1930s, specializing in ornithology. His zoological explorations in Tibet served as a cover for his role in the German secret service. He was also a scientific member in the Ahnenerbe and held the rank of an SS-Sturmbannführer.
Schäfer was born in Cologne, and even as a young boy, he spent time in the outdoors shooting with a BB gun and rearing birds, insects and reptiles. After high school (Abitur 1928 from Mannheim), he worked at Vogelwarten in Denmark and Heligoland. He then joined the University of Göttingen and studied zoology, botany and geology. He was a fan of the Swedish geographer Sven Hedin. He met Hugo Weigold on a study trip to Helgoland, which led to him joining Weigold and American Brooke Dolan II from the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences to China in 1930-31. He published Berge, Buddhas und Bären (Mountains, Buddhas and Bears) in 1933, based on the trip and gained wide recognition. In 1934, Dolan invited Schäfer for a second trip into Tibet in 1934, which affected his studies in the University of Gottingen under Professor Alfred Kühn. He then transferred to the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. He determined the yeti to be a Tibetan bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus).
Schäfer married in 1937, but his wife died in a hunting accident in November, which affected him for months, but he completed his Ph.D. in 1938, based on his studies of the birds of Tibet. Schäfer joined the Schutzstaffel in 1933 but, after World War II, he claimed to have been an unwilling recruit who joined only to advance his career.
In 1936, he was appointed Untersturmführer in the personal staff, and in 1942 he was promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer. He led the third expedition to Tibet in 1938-39 under the patronage of Heinrich Himmler, the SS, and various sponsors. As many as 3,300 bird specimens were collected in these expeditions. A film was produced on the expedition titled Geheimnis Tibet (Secret Tibet).
In July 1934, during his second expedition in Asia, he met the then exiled Panchen Lama, Thubten Chökyi Nyima, at a mountain temple near Hangzhou, China. He describes the Lama as a kindly, sympathetic man who enquired about how far Germany was and whether he had been waylaid by any robbers on the way.
The SS Ahnenerbe Expedition to Tibet during the 1930s was also successful for the German naturalists "Meanwhile, [Dr. Ernst Schäfer] and Dr. Bruno Beger, Edmund Geer and Krause carefully packed up the voluminous natural history collection- animal and bird skins; butterflies, bees, ants, wasps and other insect specimens; fragile dried plants for the herbarium; packets of seeds containing one thousand and six hundred varieties of barley, seven hundred varieties of wheat, and seven hundred varieties of oats; not to mention hundreds of seeds from other potentially useful plants.":175 These seeds collected during the Tibetan expeditions were important, as Heinrich Himmler planned to develop hardy new varieties of crops in order to boost the agricultural yields of colonies across the Eastern territories of the Ukraine and Crimea. He ordered the Ahnenerbe to found a teaching and research institute in plant genetics, assigning the task to Dr. Ernst Schäfer, the headstrong young German zoologist who had led the Tibet Expedition. Schäfer set to work with characteristic vigor. He obtained a staff of seven research scientists, including a British prisoner of war, and set up an experimental research station in Lannach, near the city of Graz in Austria. There the new institute went to work, experimenting with samples of grains the Schäfer had acquired from the granaries of the Tibetan nobility.:220
A statue in a German private collection which has come to be called the "Iron Man" is speculated to have been obtained by Ernst Schafer during the Tibet expedition in 1938 as part of Himmler's supposed mission to show that the Aryan race originated in Tibet. There is no proof that this was indeed obtained during the expedition but it has been a subject of considerable speculation. Analysis showed that it was made from iron of meteoric origin, specifically of an ataxite class, an extremely rare type, of meteorite and possibly carved from a piece of the Chinga meteorite. The statue is believed to portray the god Vaisravana. Speculation that it belongs to the pre-Buddhist Bon culture that existed in Asia about 1,000 years ago has been brought into question due to certain incoherent features of clothing and style.
In 1945, Schäfer was awarded the War Merit Cross, 2nd class with Swords. He was made an honorary member of the German ornithologists federation (DO-G) on 7 December 1939, his wedding day, a gift from Erwin Stresemann.
After the 1939 expedition he returned to Germany and married again in December. In 1945 Schäfer was interned by Allied Military Government but was exonerated for war crimes in June 1949 and released. In 1950 he moved with his wife and daughter to Venezuela and conducted studies there while also teaching in Maracay and Caracas. From 1949 to 1954 he was a professor in Venezuela, when he returned to Europe to become an adviser to the Belgian King Leopold III. With film-maker Heinz Sielmann, he produced Herrscher des Urwalds (Rulers of the Wild) (1958) in the Congo forests. Schäfer served as the curator of the Department of Natural History at the Lower Saxony State Museum from 1960 until 1970.
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