Why this film now?
Rubondo Island National Park is an experimental, radical chimpanzee rewilding project which differs from anything else in Africa. And the biggest surprise is that this highly unwise, unscientific chimpanzee translocation was such a tremendous success. That these chimpanzees have, in one generation: adapted to their new home, evolved, and become the most robust chimpanzee colony anywhere. While the population in Rubondo has grown from 16 to 100 in 50 years of little or no contact with humans, elsewhere the chimpanzee populations are dropping or just holding steady — and nearly all of them have been habituated to humans.
This wild-born generation of chimpanzees is quite averse to human contact. The Frankfurt Zoological Society gave up on a decade-long habitation project in 2011. TANAPA (Tanzanian Parks) have embarked on their own effort over the past five years, since signing up the safari operator Asilia Africa to operate the one camp on the island. It’s a natural habituation TANAPA is attempting, without food or any other incentives, and progress is glacial.
I first reported on the island in 2015 for the The Wall Street Journal and it was impossible to see the chimps back then. Now it can be done, but only with some luck—and six to eight hours of grueling trekking through thick forest for several days in row. Many visitors leave both exhausted and disappointed. Asilia, which is bankrolling the habituation effort and funding the park through concession fees, is losing money and losing patience.
Add to the mix that the surrounding area around Lake Victoria has experienced explosive population growth over the past 50 years, creating more demand for land and natural resources, and the future of the park and its chimps feels especially precarious.
This story raises similar questions to ones elsewhere: Is tourism the only way to fund conservation? How do you balance the needs of conservation with those of the local population needs? The crucial difference is that, unlike in other conservation areas, this African Jurassic Park is actually a wild space, where animals—most notably our closest genetic cousins—are living apart from humans in a way that many other animals across Africa are not. While Rubondo may not be financially successful at all, as a place where animals are allowed to be truly wild, it is a remarkable success. /Charles Runnette (Director & Producer)
Conservation & Tourism
One of the biggest challenges—and opportunities—for the island is the introduction of a serious tourism operation to the island. The dominant model for conservation in Africa is funding the preservation of land and wildlife via proceeds from visitors. When Asilia Africa took over the management of the only signifiant lodge on the island, the eight-bungalow Rubondo Island Camp, it also supported a new effort by the Tanzanian Park Service (TANAPA) to habituate the chimps. Asilia has spent more than US$300K on the effort since 2012, but the results have not been fantastic.
Chimps and other apes had long been habituated by feeding them, a practice now frowned upon by scientists and conservationists and one that can also pose long-term dangers to both the animals and humans. TANAPA insists on habituating the chimps without the help of food (what is called “natural habituation”), which means the process is very slow going. Since there is still a good chance that people won’t see chimps at all on Rubondo, Asilia has not attracted many visitors. Those that come—when they don’t see the chimps—generally complain that they’ve had a poor experience.
There are other reasons to visit Rubondo beside chimps. Tanzania introduced a number of animals to the island—elephants, giraffe, antelopes, bushbucks, rare sitatungas, vervet monkeys, black-and-white colobuses—which live alongside native hippos, rare otters, and mongoose, as well as well as hundreds of bird species and the largest population of African fish eagles in the world. But the chimpanzees are the big ticket draw, and as long as they remain difficult to see, the island will likely not support the cost of maintaining and preserving it.
Rubondo’s chimpanzees are clearly distrustful of humans; some of the trackers and TANAPA officials believe they still collectively remember that one of them was shot and killed by humans. For now, Asilia continues to support Rubondo’s upkeep, but without that support, the future of the park—and the animals that call it home—is uncertain.
Non Human rights (for the Island’s chimpanzees & Elephants)