Weekly Local Biography

 Dr. Hans Banziger


Dr. Hans Banziger is a lucky man. He has spent the majority of his working life doing what he likes best. And he likes nothing better than tramping around inhospitable areas of S.E. Asia, scrutinizing the habits of things like carrion flies and slipper orchids, or studying the habits of moths that drink the tears of wild deer and other such amazing exploits. Dr. Hans is an entomologist.

However, Dr. Hans is more than ‘just’ an entomologist, he is one whose work has been recognized by his peers in the academic world. In fact his name has been given to a millipede, a fish, two moths and two liana vines. Dr. Hans was quick to point out that he himself did not give his name to these diverse findings, “I would never do it myself, that would be immodest,” he said most modestly. No, his name was bestowed upon them by the scientific world, out of respect for his work in the field.

Dr. Hans, or as he was then, young Hans, was born in Milan, Italy, the only son (he has two sisters) to Swiss parents. He grew up in Italy, speaking Swiss-German at home and Italian in the playground of his Swiss school in Milan. He describes himself as being only an ‘average’ student. “I was good at the things I liked to do and not so good at things I didn’t like.” And what he liked was studying insects!

The career choices for a young man who collected butterflies were not great, so Hans went to university in Switzerland to study natural sciences. “I wanted to travel and see nature in other countries, so I studied geology for one year, but then moved on to Biology and then Entomology.”

This primary degree took four years, and then he continued on towards his doctorate. At that point, UNESCO and Thailand were to change his life forever. He applied for a UNESCO scholarship to do entomological research, winning the scholarship, and the venue that was given to him was Thailand. He spent two years here in the jungles describing the habits of the tear-drinking moths and other interesting entomological entities, before returning to Switzerland for another two and a half years, to emerge as Dr. Hans Banziger (and an authority on the Thai moths).

He also emerged from university without any employment offered and waiting. “It is always a difficult moment. You finish study and then you have to find a job,” said Dr. Hans. However, with his thesis and research on moths, he won another scholarship to study moths even further and he returned to Thailand and Indonesia for two years where he discovered a rare blood-sucking moth. Dr. Hans was in his entomological element!

Following this it was back to Switzerland and he put out feelers to see what was being offered. For moths - nothing! He regretfully accepted a job with the UN in plant protection services. “This was an unhappy period for me,” said Dr. Hans. This unhappy period was to last five years.

His work in moths was not forgotten, though, and he was invited to come to CMU as an ‘integrated expert’ to continue his research and teach. “This was much better for me,” said Dr. Hans. This next period was to last another five years, and when it ended he took stock of his situation.

“I had worked for 10 years, I was not married and had lived frugally and had put aside some money and also inherited a little money from my parents. I wanted to do my own research, so I stayed. And I’m still here,” all said with obvious pleasure.

Since then, he has remained attached to the CMU Department of Entomology, part of the Faculty of Agriculture, but there have been changes in his life. He is now married, but they have decided not to have children. “As a naturalist and a conservationist, there are already too many beings on the planet, so no children,” he said by way of explanation.

Other changes that have occurred over the years is that he does not have to go looking for projects, but rather the projects now come to him. This has allowed him to spend time overseas in China, Indonesia and Nepal chasing more amazing entomological findings.

And these he certainly has. When Dr. Hans speaks of his work, he is so enthusiastic about it that you cannot help but become enthusiastic too. Imagine finding new species of plant life that he has called the ‘Infanticida’ because these flowers produce the odour of rotting flesh, which attracts the carrion flies to come and lay their eggs in what they believe to be a cadaver. When these hatch, up to 1000 hatchlings die of starvation. “This species is a murderer, and it shows the mean-ness of nature,” said Dr. Hans, mysteriously.

I asked him whether he had any hobbies and he said simply that his hobby had become his job, but he had always liked art and collecting Chinese paintings had become a hobby for him these days. In his youth he had shown some talent towards painting, “But it wasn’t given enough time to evolve.” However, today he still enjoys doing his scientific drawings. “In a way it helps me relax.”

In the future he would like to put on paper all the results of his research thus far, but he is unsure whether that will eventuate. “I don’t know if I’ve got the time,” he said. “My ambition is to finish these to add to the 50 scientific papers I have published already.”

He is also a linguist, reading and writing in German, Italian, French, English and Thai (he teaches in Thai), but he dismisses this with the self deprecating, “Multi-lingual people have a problem being ‘exact’ in any language.”

So that is Chiang Mai’s entomologist, a man who all his life has kept his eye firmly on the ball, or should I say ‘bug’?