Tucked away along the southwestern shore of Lake Victoria, tiny Rubondo island offers altruistic tourists a unique opportunity to contribute to both the scientific and safari communities: a symbiotic chimpanzee trek where your own positive presence is the best gift you can give. Here, amongst 240 square kilometers of volcanic hills and forested slopes, you’re meant to experience the island and all of its thriving inhabitants—and, as part of the plan of the Rubondo Chimpanzee Habituation project, they’re meant to experience you.
The story of the habituation project has roots in the late 1960s, when famous conservationist Bernhard Grzimek of the Frankfurt Zoological Society rescued 16 chimpanzees from captivity across Europe. Seeking to reintroduce the free-born primates to their wild origins, Professor Grzimek knew the zoo-and-circus-trained chimps would need a safe and secluded location in which to reacquaint themselves with nature—and found a perfect fit in the isolated sanctuary of Rubondo Island. Then a newly established national park of Tanzania (gazetted in 1965), the evergreen-forested hills of Rubondo offered a quiet and rejuvenating environment for the chimpanzees to reestablish a foothold in their natural habitat. Introduced to their new home in small waves over a period of four years, the chimpanzees quickly acclimated to their faintly familiar surroundings, teaching themselves to build nests and relearning how to forage for sustenance—and then starting families.
While their population has grown heartily in the decades since their introduction, the new generations of chimpanzees on Rubondo have grown up unaccustomed to—and wary of—human visitors, making scientific study difficult for primatologists and providing lonely safari outings for tourists. To help build trust between us and our primate friends, the Tanzanian National Parks authority implemented the Rubondo Island Chimpanzee Habituation Experience in 2015, offering adventurous tourists an opportunity to act as ambassadors of humankind into the chimpanzees’ home.
Through this inspiring initiative, guests of Penwell Safaris delve deep into the dense inner forests of Rubondo on eight-hour treks, journeying in anticipation of contact with our primitive cousins. Fortunate encounters lead to priceless time in the quiet company of some of our closest evolutionary relatives, and invaluable shared exposure in the habituation process—a practice that can take two or more years to develop into trust. Though the habituation project has already yielded increased incidences of successful safaris, sightings of the shy chimps are still not a 100% given; but importantly, whether or not you see the great apes yourself, rest assured that your presence in the forest does not go unnoticed, and provides a beneficial example of humankind’s harmlessness in their home.
Further still, no outing is ever anything close to a bust—Rubondo Island National Park is a sanctuary for many other creatures, and everywhere around you the land teems with vibrant life and fascination. Grassy clearings and acacia groves offer rare glimpses of Rubondo’s transplanted giraffe and elephant residents, now booming with breeding populations.
Though there are no rivers winding across the island, the serpentine shorelines play host to native hippos and crocodiles, who share the sands and swamps with spoonbills and storks. From flycatchers to fish eagles, more than 300 species of birds flit over the island and crowd its surrounding rocky islets for nesting—and a recently introduced gray parrot population has claimed roost throughout the canopies. This is also the best place in Tanzania to see the semi-aquatic sitatunga antelope, fully immersed in its element in the papyrus marshes of western Rubondo. In sum, while you may come to Rubondo Island for the chimpanzees, you may find more than what you bargained for!
Trekking during the dry season is almost inarguably the most comfortable way to visit Rubondo—it’s certainly the most popular, as visitations peak from hot and sunny June to cooler October. For those willing to endure a little rain in the shoulder months from November to March, Rubondo holds even more surprises inside its borders: egg-laying serrated hinged terrapins, island-wide explosions of blossoming orchids, and hundreds of migratory birds and technicolor butterflies fluttering through the skies.
Are you ready to contribute to this conservation success story? Eager to spend some quality time with bashful primates? If you’re all set to experience just one of the many small-world safari adventures that Tanzania has in store for you, drop us a line at Penwell—we’ve got lots more that we can’t wait to share with you.