Rubondo Island became a game reserve in 1965, when it was recognised as an area of special beauty and particular importance in the natural world. The government of the time relocated the 400 Banyarubondo people living on the island to the neighbouring islands with similar ecosystems. In 1977, the island was designated specifically as a National Park.
A perfect animal sanctuary
From 1966 to 1969, Professor Bernhard Grzimek of the Frankfurt Zoological Society released 16 chimpanzees in four cohorts onto Rubondo Island. The chimpanzees were all wild-born and purportedly of West African descent, although there are no records of their specific country of origin. Rescued from various European zoos and circuses, the chimpanzees had spent from 3½ months to 9 years in captivity.
The first cohort of chimpanzees arrived in Dar es Salaam aboard the German African Line’s steamship ‘Eibe Oldendorff’ on 17 June 1966. The animals had no rehabilitation or pre-release training but after one year on Rubondo they were able to find and eat wild foods and construct nests for sleeping.
In 2000, 37 African grey parrots rescued from illegal traders were released onto the island. The birds had been confiscated at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport in transit from Cameroon to a market in the Far East. Rubondo was selected as the best place to release them back into the wild, partly because it is so rich in fig trees – the African greys’ favourite. The high-pitched screeches and whistles of the parrots are a common sound on Rubondo.
Several other species – such as roan antelope, rhino, elephant and giraffe from difficult circumstances – were also introduced on the island. Today, hundreds of species flourish here; they have adapted to the forest and can continue to live in harmony as nature intended.
Rubondo Island Camp
Since the 1960s, there have been very few visitors to Rubondo Island. The Tanzania National Parks Authority offers basic accommodation, but Rubondo Island Camp is the only camp on the island – we really do have this pristine wilderness to ourselves. Asilia Africa opened the camp on 1 June 2013, and the eight rooms – built using local materials and techniques with to ensure minimum environmental impact – are nestled into the surrounding forest.
Asilia’s aim is to structurally improve the prospects for the area. Turning Rubondo Island into a profitable sustainable travel destination will have many local economic benefits. Our efforts to habituate the community of 40+ chimpanzees on the island is a long and arduous task that will ultimately ensure a steady stream of visitors, who wish to see our closest cousins in their natural habitat. This is one way to secure the viability of this wildlife refuge for generations to come.