A Magic spell on Rubondo Island

By Eric Frank

Rubondo Island National Park is an example of the foresight and visionary genius of late President Julius Nyerere — the man who led Tanzania to independence and onwards to become one of Africa’s leading conservation economies. Nyerere’s commitment to preserving the nation’s natural heritage is evident in the splendour of the country’s national parks and also in the preservation of the enormous natural wealth that lies above and below the waters of Lake Victoria — Rubondo Island National Park. The flight between Mwanza and Rubondo Island is approximately 25 minutes and in that time one can only marvel at the vast expanse of water and many islands that pass below the aircraft’s wings.

Sitting in front with the pilot is a must when you come in to land on the island. The approach to the airstrip, which looks like an extended cricket pitch carved out of the jungle, is over the lake and the touchdown is an unexpected jolt that leaves you wondering if you have just had a near death experience. Isn’t this just what you would expect when setting off on an adventure into the unknown?

Habibu Kissio—the senior guide at Asilia’s Rubondo Island Camp is at the airstrip to meet my wife, Tertia and myself and after a glass of chilled bubbles we leave for the camp that is only a few minutes away. The rocky road winds through a dense, dark forest that is constantly cut back to prevent it from taking over the road. In a shaft of light that breaks through the forest canopy we see a bushbuck ewe lift her head to watch us pass. On arrival at the camp we are met by Henk and Janine the camp’s managers, and shown to our chalet.

The large bedroom looks out over what appears to be a well-manicured lawn and then onto the shimmering surface of Lake Victoria. A small dhow and motorboat sway gently at their moorings and the water lapping at the shore sounds like we’re at the seaside. The only difference is that each wave looks and sounds exactly the same as the previous one. As we are escorted back to the chalet after dinner that night we discover that the team that keep the lawn trimmed weigh in at about a ton each, grunt continuously and have a reputation for killing more humans than any other animal on the planet. Fortunately they ignore us and we slip into the room as quickly as we can.

A golden peach-coloured sunrise introduces the new day. And it’s magnificent. The lake is flat and glassy—perfect for a cruise to get a closer look at Rubondo’s famous birdlife and crocodiles. Habibu meets us at the beach after breakfast. He introduces us to Deus the skipper of the boat. Deus is a rehabilitated poacher and therefore knows the waters around Rubondo Island intimately. Habibu tells us we are heading off to a bay where many species of birds gather and en route we’ll stop off at Crocodile Island. As we approach this nondescript rocky outcrop, some distance from the shore, the mother of all crocs oozes itself into the water, heads towards us and then quietly disappears under the surface. Tertia immediately moves towards the middle of the boat and I imagine she is thinking that falling overboard at that moment would dramatically cut short any plans she had for the future. The thought of it makes me shiver and I squeeze her hand reassuringly. The crocodiles virtually lie on top of each other and I can find no rational reason why so many should gather on this barren pile of rocks so far from the shore. Judging by their leering looks and toothy smiles, I speculate that they come here to hang out, soak up the sun and look as disgustingly evil as they possibly can.

Some time later, as we slowly cruise along the shoreline, I am amazed at the diversity and amount of birds we see. Egrets are by far in the majority, but we also see African Darters, Open Billed Storks, Kingfishers, Fish Eagles and some migrating European Bee Eaters that have stopped over on the island to rest. Habibu is an excellent guide. Both Tertia and I only have a rudimentary knowledge of birds and he succeeds brilliantly in getting us interested in learning more about them. I am particularly fascinated to learn that the male fish eagle is smaller than the female and that his call is more hysterical and high-pitched. In no time I can able to identify which is which by ear.

Before coming to the island I was asked to photograph the Camp’s new tree house that was soon due to be launched in the media. The cherry on top was that Tertia and I would also be the first guests to spend a night there. Getting to the tree house is easy. You simply walk to the end of the beach and follow a path that takes you to a wooden walkway. The walkway leads you up a gentle slope along the side of a hill and onto a wooden deck with safety railings and a generous canvas canopy. A king-size bed draped with a silky mosquito net holds centre-stage and the surrounding views of the forest canopy and Lake Victoria are exquisite. A woven wooden screen, that also serves as a headboard, separates the en-suite bathroom and flush toilet from the sleeping area. The bathtub is a showstopper. Made entirely out of gleaming copper, it looks as if it could have been created for the likes of Lady Gaga. Set against a wall of hand-packed rocks, the bathroom area seamlessly merges with the surrounding hillside environment. Hot and cold water can be accessed via a showerhead as big as a soup plate or vintage brass taps. As the sun sets I manage to photograph as much of the tree house as I can. In doing so I realise that a photograph will never do justice to this fantastical out-of this-world place. Then dinner arrives, with chilled sparkling wine, a full moon and a symphony of night sounds. In the very early hours of the morning I wake up to the sounds of branches breaking nearby. Elephants? Before I know the answer I drift off to sleep again.

My father was a keen sport fisherman and his love for things piscatorial lives on in me. Therefore, it goes without saying, that the thought of catching one of Rubondo Island’s monster-sized Nile Perch was high on my agenda for this trip. Once again Habibu, Deus and I set off, this time for Rubondo’s renowned fishing grounds. The most common technique for catching Nile Perch is to troll large colourful lures, normally used to catch tuna, about 20 metres behind the boat as it cruises at a slow speed. In no time the rod next to me bucks and bends. As I strike and set the hook, Deus cuts the engine. Unfortunately, the action is short-lived and the fish throws the lure and joins the legions of other fish I have failed to land successfully. Some time passed before we caught two reasonably sized fish in quick succession and released them back into the water. Then things went quiet, very quiet. The rolling of the boat, the reassuring rumble of the motor and the sun on my back conspired to lull me into a state of semi-conscious slumber. Suddenly Habibu shouted “fish!” I snapped upright and grabbed the bending rod. This time there was real weight at the end of the line and it didn’t budge. I turned to Habibu and suggested we had snagged a rock or a submerged tree. He half-smiled and in his quiet, soft-spoken manner reassured me it was a fish. Then all hell happened at once, the rod nearly leapt out of my hands and line peeled off the reel at a blistering pace. “Fish my arse,” I yelped. “It’s a bloody battle tank!” Bringing the fish to the boat took time and when I eventually caught sight of it I gasped. It was monstrous! With a lot of effort we hauled it onto the boat where it was measured. I asked Deus and Habibu to hold it so that I could take a photograph. It is probably the best bad picture I have ever taken because I simply couldn’t get back far enough to fit all the stars of the show into the frame. (Habibu my friend, I sincerely apologise for cutting off the top of your head). We then released the fish back into the water and I did the first thing real men do under such circumstances —I had a beer!

Supplies destined for Rubondo Island Camp are delivered weekly in Muganza the nearest mainland town to the island. These are then fetched by boat and brought back to the camp. Asilia owns a vegetable garden in Muganza and a local gardener grows fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits for the camp’s kitchen. Tertia and I decide to join Michelle Attala on an excursion to the garden and, because Saturday is market day in the town, we’ll explore that too. The boat ride is relatively short and we’re there in no time. The vegetable garden is larger than I imagined and the soil is dark and rich. Despite the fact that most of the crops are not ripe and ready to be harvested we still manage to collect tomatoes, lettuce, parsley and rocket. The Saturday market however is an entirely different experience. It appears that few foreigners visit Muganza and Tertia, who shows more than a passing interest in purchasing some wax print fabrics, is a hit with the fabric stall owners. Shopping in an African market takes decisiveness. If you show uncertainty you will be bombarded with a host of new options to buy and your entire purchasing strategy falls apart. On occasions when this happens, Tertia suddenly (and very dramatically) asks me what I think. This draws the attention of the stall owners onto me. While I ponder, fuss and compare the merchandise she uses the time to make up her mind. Finally we leave the market with two lengths of fabric and head back to the boat. It is our last day on Rubondo Island and tomorrow Tertia flies home and I leave for Olakira Camp in the northern Serengeti.

We spent a magical week at Rubondo Island Camp. The location and accommodation is perfect for exploring the island and the management and staff are warm, welcoming and helpful. Rubondo Island National Park covers an area of 457 km² (including the main island, surrounding water and 11 small islets). 85% of the island is covered by dense forest and the balance comprises of savannah, papyrus swamps and open woodland. Wildlife includes elephant, giraffe, hippo, crocodile, sitatunga, bushbuck, suni, wild chimpanzees, black and white colobus monkeys and over 200 species of birds.

Untitled

A one-ton lawnmower and manure spreader

 darter

 The African Darter (a rare visitor to Rubondo Island)

 sunrise

Early morning view of Lake Victoria from our bedroom

chalets

Rubondo Island Camp Accommodation

Bee eaters

European Bee Eaters

fisheagle

Heroic Fish Eagle

Stork

The amazing Open Billed Stork (the gap in his beak helps him crush freshwater mussels)

croc

Butter couldn’t melt in that mouth

Perch

Habibu, Deus and the Battle Tank

tree house

The Tree House bedroom

bath

The Tree House en-suite bathroom and tub

Muganza

Muganza photographic studio

fabric

Fabric emporium

Garden

The Asilia Vegetable garden

Return to Rubondo

By Rainee Beaton

Rainee Beaton first visited Rubondo Island twenty years ago, and here she shares with us her impressions of her latest visit.

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About twenty years ago together with my sister and brother-in-law we took a boat from Kisumu in Kenya across the lake to Uganda and I clearly remember the unpredictability of lake Victoria.  It took us three days via Rusinga island and we got caught up in electric storms, had engine problems and had only a car compass for navigation – we actually relied more on the fishermen to point us in the direction of Uganda!

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This trip to Rubondo from Mwanza seemed pale in comparison, however being a little more mature and with our beloved children on board we were still quite nervous about the trip.  We had a navigational app on the iPad which showed us our route and how long it should take to get there – a little more sophisticated than the car compass!  The lake was like a millpond the whole way and three hours after departure we had arrived.

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As we were early for lunch we put the rods out at ”the wall” and sipped cold beer to celebrate. Arriving in the protected bay of Rubondo lodge really felt like arriving somewhere special – the secluded, private island feel stayed with me for the full four days we were there.

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We were on the boat every day after breakfast and just loved being on the water, watching the bird life and catching fish.  The forest walks were a lovely contrast to being on the boat and it was a novelty for us to see so many sitatunga.  We had a wonderful barbeque lunch on the beach, sundowners on the other side of the island, fished off the rocks near the mess every evening and just had such a great time.  It was sad to leave and the journey back to Mwanza was a little more of a challenge – we had a head wind and battled big waves so we all got wet and it took over five hours to get there, but it was exciting for everyone to experience another side to the lake’s character.  A great adventure and wonderful memories for us all.

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The African adventures of Bernhard Grzimek

By Ryan Green, Travel Writer.

Grzimek

Bernhard Grzimek (1909 – 1987) was a renowned Silesian-German zoo director, zoologist, book author, editor, and animal conservationist in post-war Germany.

He was the Director of the Frankfurt Zoological Garden for almost 30 years, and the president of the Frankfurt Zoological Society for over 40 years. The society – organised on similar principles as its London and New York counterparts – runs a number of wildlife conservation projects both in Germany and overseas; most well known is its ongoing work in the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania. Grzimek was instrumental in creating and expanding this National Park, following his documentary film “Serengeti shall not die”, for which he won an Academy Award in 1959. He prophesied in his book: “Large cities continue to proliferate. In the coming decades and centuries, men will not travel to view marvels of engineering, but they will leave the dusty towns in order to behold the last places on earth where God’s creatures are peacefully living. Countries which have preserved such places will be envied by other nations and visited by streams of tourists. There is a difference between wild animals living a natural life and famous buildings. Palaces can be rebuilt if they are destroyed in wartime, but once the wild animals of the Serengeti are exterminated no power on earth can bring them back.”

He was actively involved in many conservation projects across Africa, and Rubondo Island features in a few tales of his adventures in East Africa. A chapter in his book “Among Animals of Africa” is entitled ‘How Europe exported apes to Africa’ and details the story of how, in the 1960s, Rubondo Island became a vital sanctuary for endangered wildlife.

Grzimek wrote: “I had been introduced to Rubondo by Peter Achard, a game warden based in Mwanza at the southern end of Lake Victoria. Achard felt rather forlorn in this corner of Tanzania: ‘All the tourists and VIP’s go to the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti,’ he told me. ‘Nobody comes to Mwanza for a look at my part of the world.’

We boarded a light aircraft and flew the 85 miles to Rubondo. Achard knew what he was doing when he chose Rubondo. I immediately fell in love with the island. It is 24 miles long and on average, 5 miles wide. Three-quarters of its 135 square miles are covered with forest and the remainder consists of grass-covered hills. Above all, Rubondo is uninhabited.

So Rubondo now belongs to the animals. Peter Achard had previously captured sixteen rhinos in other threatened areas of Tanzania, most of them badly wounded by poachers or big game hunters. He had talked the Public Works Department, which is responsible for roads and transport, into bringing a car-ferry big enough to hold ten trucks from one of the neighbouring bays of Lake Victoria and transporting the grey giants to Rubondo in their heavy crates. On one occasion the ferry almost sank. Six giraffes made the trip as well, and one of the rhinos has since produced young on the island.”

Sadly, none of these rhinos remain on the island, having been wiped out by poaching in the subsequent decades, but the giraffes and other animals are thriving to this day.

On how the first chimpanzees came to Rubondo, Grzimek wrote: ‘Peter Achard was an energetic and enthusiastic man, and enthusiasm can be infectious even to aging men like me, who really ought to steer clear of adventuring. As a result, the Frankfurt Zoological Society circularised all European zoos and on May 16th 1966 dispatched ten large chimpanzees from Antwerp aboard the German African Line’s steamship Eibe Oldendorff.

When the ship finally reached Tanzania, he was bemused to note: “The first Dar es Salaam paper I opened when I reached Mwanza contained a photograph of the chimpanzees accompanied by a ridiculous report alleging that the animals, which hailed from European zoos, were accustomed to nothing but the best Russian tea. It appeared that the chief problem would be how to convert them to drinking plain water in the wild. I don’t know which sailor sold this nonsense to the African reporter in Dar, but the same picture and report were reprinted in every German newspaper.”!

The next problem they encountered was how to release the animals once they reached the island, as being habituated to humans, they had no natural fear of people, and some of them were quite aggressive. The solution was to place the crates on the edge of the lakeshore: “We chose a fairly level spot on the shores of Rubondo to unload the crates containing the chimpanzees. Although they had to be manhandled ashore, this gave us the chance to take refuge in the water after opening them. Some of the adult zoo chimpanzees were anything but harmless. One of them had already put a keeper in hospital. Another particularly spiteful male caused considerable mischief on Rubondo eighteen months later.”

Sinclair Dunnet is seen in the picture below, opening the crate with great care.

Rubondo chimps arriving image 2  Rubondo chimps

“He could retreat into the water at a moments notice because anthropoid apes are non-swimmers.”

In Uganda, on the opposite shore to Rubondo, he had a great idea to assist the game wardens in combating water-borne poachers. Having heard of a German firm manufacturing the Amphicar (an amphibious car capable of travelling on land and water), he ordered one and had it shipped to Mombasa, where he met it and drove to Uganda, always followed by a crowd of curious onlookers!

He used the open-topped convertible with great success as a game-drive vehicle in the game reserves, both in and out of the water.

“I could have sold my amphibious car three times over to enthusiastic American tourists, probably at a premium, but I and Aubrey Buxton had already made a joint present of it to the Uganda National Parks. It is hoped that their new African director, Francis Katete will put paid to [get rid of] the poachers with its assistance.”

Grzimek 2 Grzimek 1

In an effort to learn more about the behaviour of large African animals, he convinced a German company to make up life-sized inflatable models of a lion, an elephant and a rhino, which he planned to set out strategically to observe the real animals’ reactions to them.

The lion was quickly deflated by the claws of a curious lioness in the Ngorongoro Crater, and Ian Douglas-Hamilton, the famed elephant researcher, assisted him in placing their dummy in the vicinity of wild elephants, often demonstrating considerable bravery, according to Grzimek. Thus, when the time came to experiment with the inflatable rhino, Grzimek felt he had to demonstrate some bravado of his own, which resulted in the picture below.

Grzimek 3

“I found it a rather uneasy sensation, confronting an aggressive bull rhino with nothing but a balloonful of air between his horns and my ribs. It soon turned out that the rhino felt almost as uneasy as I did.”

It is doubtful that anybody would repeat this experiment in the present day, but in those early years of studying the wildlife of East Africa, it seemed a sensible method in the very early days of the science which has now become known as ethology.

Bernhard Grzimek’s stories are peppered with adventures and the occasional mishap, filled with great humour, and like the naturalist David Attenborough, he was imbued with a huge love of the animals, and a powerful desire to protect and preserve the wild places and landscapes of Africa.

Impressions of Namiri Plains and Rubondo Island

By Judith Rosink, Asilia Sales Manager, East Africa

Judith Rosink has just returned from a whirlwind tour of some of our Tanzanian camps, and here she shares her impressions of Namiri Plains and Rubondo Island with us.

On the 31st of July I left Arusha Airport with Coastal Aviation to Seronera Airstrip in Central Serengeti. Upon arrival, Hamza (my very experienced driver/guide) picked me up and my adventure began. After approximately 45 minutes we left the Seronera area and entered the Namiri Plains. Having visited almost every corner of Serengeti in the past couple of years, Namiri Plains is totally different — we saw no other safari vehicles and felt like we were the only 2 people on Earth! All of a sudden we saw three cheetahs close to the dirt road, relaxing after they had consumed their freshly caught prey! We could not really identify what they had killed but it looked like an impala. I was overwhelmed, since I had never encountered 3 cheetah at the same time on any safari I had been on before. It had been high on my wish list, so Hamza could do no wrong after this!

 

cheetah  cheetah2

We then proceeded to the camp, which was about another 5 kilometres away. The camp has a unique location and since I prefer the real “Out of Africa” feeling above being in a crowd, I felt absolutely at home. I only went to my tent for a couple of minutes because, for me it is a waste of time to be indoors when there is so much to see outside. So I went to sit at the outside lounge area and simply enjoyed the beautiful view. Not far from where I sat I saw buffalo, giraffe, impala and many different bird species.

Before dinner a nice, so-called “bush television,” was set up for us around a campfire. Two honeymoon couples, a family of four and I exchanged many entertaining stories and I hadn’t laughed as much in years. Both Epimak (camp manager) and Blessed (head guide) told us about the beautiful area we were sitting in and we marvelled at their vast knowledge of the environment and the wildlife.

Afterwards dinner was served at a shared table and, I must say, with each course the chef Emanuelle had our taste buds dancing with delight. In no time at all our plates were empty.

The next morning I woke up early to enjoy the sunrise and then Hamza and I had to leave because I needed to catch a plane and he still wanted to show me around. While driving around the kopjes we spotted a group of seven young male lions lounging about after their breakfast. We continued towards the airstrip and the last surprise we encountered was a big herd of elephants just roaming around and feeling completely comfortable with our presence!

At 14h00 it was time to say goodbye and to take off to my next adventure, Rubondo Island.

Well, what can I say about Rubondo Island? I didn’t know what to expect since the only islands I knew were the cold ones in the Netherlands. The flew over the amazing Lake Victoria and suddenly this little island popped up and on the edge of it there was an airstrip that turned out to be my destination. Once we landed and I had both feet on the ground I truly could not believe my eyes — normally I always know how to speak out loud (part of my job I guess!) but I was completely speechless, struck by the beauty I saw around me. After a very nice welcome at the airstrip by guides Habibu and Elisante, complete with snacks and sparkling wine, (there were two other couples who arrived at the same time) we stepped into the Land Rover for the ten-minute drive to Rubondo Island Camp. We drove through some thick forest and after not even two minutes we spotted our first animal — a sitatunga, a small fluffy antelope that I have never seen before.

 

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Upon arrival, Henk and Janine were waiting for us and we were warmly welcomed. We were brought to our rooms and again, as I do not have anything to do with rooms apart from sleeping in them, I went to explore the area. Vervet monkeys were jumping around all over the place, a lot of birds flew around the forest looming over a beautiful sandy beach. After that we went to have a drink together with the other guests at the fire, which was set up at the beach where we enjoyed refreshing drinks and delicious spicy bites. Dinner was served at a communal table and the food was excellent — I live in Arusha and believe me, there are maybe only one or two restaurants in town that serve the same high standard of food!

Since the weather is totally unpredictable on the island, activities offered can only be arranged on the moment. The next morning I did a guided forest walk together with Habibu and two other guests. Since there are elephants around, we had to be escorted by an armed guide of TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks). First we had to drive approximately 15 minutes until we reached the Mamba Track. The forest was thick, so it was difficult to clearly spot all the birds we heard singing, but on the ground we saw beautiful bushes and trees and the smell of the blossoming wild coffee plants stayed in my nose the rest of the day. After 1.5 hours of walking and exploring every leaf, seed, flower and bug we met on our way, we saw our first chimp nest. You could see it was a couple of days old but there were many of them, and a hundred meters further along there was a fresh (very green) one which must have been built just the day before. Habibu explained to us that it must have been a big male who had built this, as it was not very high up in the tree, and females tend to build at higher altitude to be able to protect their youngsters. The chimps normally used to be further away in the forest, Habibu explained, but in the last couple of weeks they had been in the area where we now were more often, so this is very promising. He thinks that the permanent water in the area is attracting them and that it should not be too difficult to habituate them to humans in due course.

After four hours, we sadly had to return to camp, as the other guests did not want to continue. I could have spent the whole day in the forest! However, later on I would have regretted it if I had stayed, because after lunch we went out fishing! Captain and Elisante took four of us out on the lake in the camp’s well-equipped speedboat and after only 10 minutes we already caught a massive Nile perch! We are not pros, so a 10 kg fish is pretty big! Within half an hour three more were caught and it was very special to hold one for the camera.

 

rubondo birds rubondo beach rubondo fishing rubondo boat

We also saw fish eagles, herons and many other aquatic bird species.

Refreshments and snacks were served on board, and it was a fantastic, fun-filled experience for all.

The next day I had to wake up early because there is only one flight per day from the island and it leaves at 07h30. As I said goodbye, I knew in my heart that I would have loved to stay on Rubondo Island longer.

 

Life around Camp

By Janine Bronkhorst, Rubondo Island Camp Manager

Rubondo Island is a sanctuary to many different species of animals, but these particular ones love hanging around camp!

Meet the crew:

Rodger – The Black & White Colobus Monkey

Colobus guereza

colobus

Photo by Anton Crone

Colobus monkeys generally live in groups of around nine individuals, but Rodger was exiled from his group many years ago and has found refuge within the camp area. He can be heard barking loudly all through camp, but he is also very shy, so although we always hear when Rodger is around, it is sometimes very hard to spot him.

Colobus monkeys have a life span of around 20 years and are omnivorous. These monkeys were introduced to Rubondo in 1977 from Mount Meru. They were hunted to near extinction in some areas for their beautiful fur to make dance costumes, capes and hats. The biggest threat they face today is loss of habitat as deforestation is such a big factor all over Africa. Rubondo Island offers the perfect sanctuary for our furry friends.

Unlike other monkeys, colobus monkeys do not have thumbs. They are strictly leaf-eaters and spend most of their time in treetops, preferring to eat the tender, young leaves found there. However, their complex stomachs enable them to digest mature or toxic foliage that other monkeys cannot. They are also the most arboreal of all African monkey species.

Bella – The Bushbuck

Tragelaphus scriptus

Bella_bushbuck

Photo by Habibu Kissio

Bella is easy to spot amongst others due to her greyish white side. She is one of the older ladies around and mother to many other bushbuck in the area and who all have her greyish white signature. Her newest baby is named Charlie and was born in January 2014; he has a grey patch on the right side of his neck. Bushbuck have a gestation period of about 6 months and keep their young hidden for the first 4 months after birth. Infants will reach maturity after one year and a male’s horns will only be full-grown after three years. Although many bushbuck can be found in one area, they are still strictly solitary animals.

Bushbuck lamb

Photo by Henk Ferreira

Bertha – The beach loving Bush Pig

Photamochoerus lariats

Bertha

Photo by Habibu Kissio

Bertha is around all year long, but it is only in December and January when she comes around to the lounge area and acts like a vacuum cleaner to eat the yellow berries that decorate our deck. She loves hanging out on the beach too! A bushpig’s diet adapts to the seasons. They are omnivorous and will feed on everything from fungi, small reptiles, roots and bulbs to fruit whenever it becomes available. They become sexually mature at about 18 months and will give birth to up to 10 piglets after a gestation period of 2 months. It is unknown how the pigs came to Rubondo; speculation suggests that they drifted over on a papyrus float.

Betha 2

Bruce, Sidney and Jumpie – The Sitatungas

Traphelagus Spekei

Sitatunga_male Sitatunga-lamb1 Sitatunga_lamb

Photos by Janine Bronkhorst

Bruce is a big male that loves being photographed; he is often found around the main area and is completely unphased by the Homo sapiens population that often walks by. Sidney is a young female that feels that the pool is sometimes a safer option to drink from than the lake, as there seem to be less crocodiles around this watering hole! She gave birth to a very playful Jumpie in January 2014. Sitatungas are Africa’s only true amphibious antelopes. Often referred to as the ‘water-kudu’, they live mostly in swamplands on the fringes of forests. They are distinguished by their long, splayed hooves that make the sitatunga clumsy and vulnerable on firm terrain but well-adapted for walking through muddy, vegetated swamplands. They are good but slow swimmers capable of paddling for several miles. Males are also considerably larger than females and have long, twisted horns. Charlie and Jumpie also happen to be great friends!

charlie Jumpie

Gerard – The grumpy Elephant

Loxodonta africana

Elephant

Photo by Francois Botha

Six Elephants were introduced to Rubondo in the 1970’s. It is said that the group that was brought here were all orphaned by ivory poachers, which explains their stroppy behaviour towards humans. There is now an estimated population of about 50.

Two main types of elephant are known through Africa; the bush or savannah elephant and the forest elephant. Elephants adapt easily to ecological conditions, therefore more than 25 subspecies are found throughout Africa. The Rubondo group is no different; the bush elephants that were brought here had to genetically change to adapt to their new forest environment. Forest elephants are known to be smaller in size than bush elephants, but have much larger and straighter tusks to enable them to move easier through dense forest. The Rubondo elephants are very different in both aspects; they have very small tusks and are much bigger than any other elephants we have seen! Due to the abundance of food and water on the island, they do not need long tusks to dig for roots or ward off predators. They are very destructive and use their big size to push over the tall trees in order to get to the green leaves on top. They also behave different to other elephant and are mostly active at night.

Peter – The African Grey Parrot

Psittacus erithacus

Parrot

Photo by Markus Borner

Early in the morning, the parrots can be heard throughout camp and although they seem to be everywhere, they are hard to spot! Peter and his friends love the big fig trees where they easily hide in the dense canopy while feasting on wild figs. Although these parrots are mainly herbivores, they will sometimes feed on small insects too. They are often kept as domestic pets for their ability to mimic sounds and this is also how they came to Rubondo.

The African Grey Parrots were introduced to Rubondo in 2000. They were part of an illegal shipment of approximately 200 parrots that were caught in the wild in Cameroon, and destined to be shipped to Europe to be sold as pets. They were confiscated in Nairobi and a spent two years at in animal shelter, during which time their future was debated endlessly. Finally the remaining 37 parrots made the trip to Rubondo. Now, one can see these beautiful creatures as they should be, flying around in flocks, or climbing around the tops of the trees in search of food, all the while adding a cacophony of screeching sounds to the already noisy forest symphony. They often make us giggle when they try to mimic the fish eagles.

Monty – The Monitor Lizard

Varanus niloticus

Monitor lizard

Photo by Janine Bronkhorst

Monty is particularly big for his kind; they have grown up to 2.5m long in certain recorded cases, but are generally only about 120 to 150 cm long. He lives on the rocky shore just outside the main area and sometimes comes out in the open to bask in the sun so that we can admire him.

Monitor Lizards are superb swimmers and can stay submerged for up to 20 minutes at a time. These lizards have a varied diet, are fond of crabs and mussels but will eat any suitable vertebrates like frogs, small fish, birds and bird eggs. They are notorious raiders of unattended crocodile nests.

Females will often claw their way into an active termite mound and lay their eggs inside. The termites then seal the hole again and the eggs are kept warm and moist while safely inside. They take up to a year to incubate.

Some of the other species that were released on the island, like the suni and giraffe, are a bit shyer, and we only see glimpses of them from time to time. The nocturnal critters, like the genet and marsh mongoose that are indigenous to the island, sometimes appear at night to have a quick peek at our guests.

The island holds so much mystery, with so many hiding places where we often find new and exciting discoveries. It is truly sublime and we are extremely lucky to be able to call this magical island home!

“SAFINA” the Ark

By Professor Markus Borner, PhD

Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow.

Markus Borner was a contemporary of the German Conservationist Professor Bernard Grzimek in the late 1970s, and was instrumental in the early days of establishing Rubondo Island as a National Park. He recently revisited Rubondo, and here he shares his memories of the old days, coupled with his experience of the contemporary camp.

Images © Marcus and Felix Borner

“Safina” or “Ark” was the name of the old diesel boat with which I reached Rubondo for the first time.  It was more of a torture chamber as its exhaust was long gone and 12 hours on the lake in horrendous noise made me nearly jump into the water – not even thinking about crocodiles anymore.

An ark for endangered animals, which was the vision the German Conservationist Prof Bernhard Grzimek had when he first “discovered” the Island together with a friend from the Game Department from Mwanza. He fell in love with the forested Island in Lake Victoria, its remnants of the central African forests, its beaches and its animals. He managed to convince his friend Julius Nyerere to make it a National Park and promised to help with its build up and maintenance. So when in 1977 the Tanzanian Parliament raised the status of Rubondo Island to National Park, Grzimek sent me and my wife Monica to help as promised.

35 years ago, as much as today, the Island was true to its promise of a postcard picture dream island. It had been somehow protected since German colonial times, first as a Forest Reserve then from 1966 as a Game Reserve. But for us new arrivals it was not just a wonderful and lovely wilderness, it was also isolated, remote and inaccessible. Together with The Chief Park Warden from Tanzania National Parks, Samwuel Maganga, we lived in a tiny house close to where the Parks guesthouses are today. The rangers lived with their families in small corrugated iron sheet boxes, the old rusty diesel boat was the only link to the mainland, no power, no fridge and “shopping trips” to Mwanza were a major undertaking and happened only every two or three months. The only link to the rest of the world was a short wave radio to Serengeti where Samwuel called every morning his: “Mamba” from “Nzohe” – Do you read?” Mostly nobody read anything.

airplane   Felix hedgehog

The simple life had its great advantages and our small family with little Felix and Sophie lived for six years a bit like the “Family Robinson”.  Installing a well with a hand pump to provide water in the house was a major achievement; baking our own bread over the fire in a metal tin got better and better; building the first patrol boats by cutting the back of a poacher canoe and put an outboard on was a huge advance for the protection of the island and its wildlife; lighting the kerosene lamps and trying to get the old Chinese carburettor lamp going was an evening ritual. Best of all was the absence of all the hectic-ness and pressures we have now with email and telephone. When we had a problem we wrote a letter on our ancient “Hermes Baby” sent it to Germany and when we eventually got the answer three months later we had no idea anymore what the original problem had been.

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But maybe it was remembering this very simple – and sometimes difficult – lifestyle we had on the Island that made my recent stay at the Rubondo Island Camp of Asilia Africa such a wonderful experience. The Island was as brilliant as ever, the hippos and crocodiles as exciting as before, the forest still full of elves and trolls (and sitatungas and bushbucks of course), the bird life with species from the savannah and the equatorial forests splendid, the walks in the forest as exciting – but boy – the lifestyle! It was just amazing. The camp is in the most spectacular bay that I remember choosing for a possible camp many years ago. The feeling of the romantic dream island has been well preserved and the luxury cabins well hidden. I was thinking of our past daily diet of fish, rice and beans and beans, rice and fish when we were spoiled with delicious meals at the camp. Janine and Henk pampered us to no end, already knew a lot about the island and shared our excitement to be able to work in such a wonderful place. Henk is obviously a very dedicated fisherman and knows where to find his fish but I did not dare to tell him that my Nile Perch record had been an 87-kilo monster, albeit caught not like a great sportsman, but on a super strong line.

Nile Perch

On an evening cruise with a G&T I managed to leave the world behind me thankful that Rubondo Island is not just a wonderful dream in my past but still a place where we can feel part of nature and find something that links us human beings to trees, water and wild creatures and makes us happy.

I shall be back!

Markus Borner, June 2014

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The Butterflies of Rubondo Island National Park

By Habibu Kissio, Rubondo Island Camp Guide

Rubondo Island National Park covers a total area of 456.8 sq km of which 236.8 sq km is dry land. There are also 11 smaller islets and 220 sq km of water.

The park contains unique flora and fauna with a mosaic of different primary forests creating a dense cover of over 80% of the Island. This is interspersed by papyrus swamp, rocky grassland, open woodland, grassland and sandy lakeshore.

The park structure of different vegetation, geographical location and very pleasant weather is a paradise to much wildlife, including an abundance of Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths), which are one of my favourite subjects.

Butterflies are attracted by many factors, including availability of good cover, water, plants for food and to lay their eggs; all these factors exist in Rubondo National Park.

Rubondo is home to many species of Lepidoptera, and some of them are endemic to the Island. Since the establishment of Asilia’s camp on the island, many species of butterflies have been recorded and photographed.

Feeding and Food of Butterflies:

As larvae, the vast majority of butterflies feed on plant matter. Choice of larval food is often highly specialised and in some cases restricted to a single species. As a result, butterfly distribution is influenced by the availability of food for the larvae.

Most butterflies are active during the day [diurnal] and they start to become very active when the sun is not too hot. Butterflies can be observed in the morning and at sunset on forest edges, on flowers, in the canopy, alongside marshes, on animal dung, rotten fruit and dead animals, demonstrating that they utilise a huge variety of food sources.

These are some species of Butterflies of Rubondo Island National Park that have been observed through various activities and field studies:

African Monarch (Danaus chrysippus aegytus). These orange and black butterflies can be seen nearly everywhere on the island, gliding slowly and lazily from one flower to another. The orange and black is known as a warning colour, as they are poisonous from the alkaloids [toxins] they extract from toxic plants during their larval stage. Keeping this toxicity their entire lives, this is the reason why they fly lazily, as nobody can eat them!

African Monarch

2. Friar (Amuaris ochlea ochlea) Conspicuously marked with black and white, the males have less white on the wings than the females, which have a more rounded wing. They love shade and are seldom found in the open, except nearby attractive flowers, where they sometimes swarm. They can be seen everywhere within the forest flap gliding slowly because they are poisonous to predators. When disturbed, they flash out a yellow soft brush at their rear end that emits an unpleasant smell to deter predators. They can be observed in open areas within the forest mixed up together with other species such as Novices, Laymans and Chiefs, sucking alkaloids from toxic plants.

Friar

3. Acreas are medium size butterflies that can be found flying slowly, close to the ground and above the canopy searching for alkaloids from toxic plants. Large numbers of different species of Acrea can be seen in various habitats like forest, grassland forest, open grassland, undergrowth forest and along the forest edges. Acreas are brightly coloured to warn their predators that they are toxic and cannot be eaten, which is why they can fly around slowly. The species of Acreas on the Island are abundant and need to be very carefully examined to identify them in the field – such as Garden Acrea; (Acrea Horta), Rainforest Acrea; (Acrea boois boois), Pale Yellow Acrea; (Hyalites obeira burni) and Dusky Acrea; (Pardosis esebria esebria).

Acrea

4. Leopard or Phalantas. These have small yellow and black spots on their wings, thus their name. They are active on sunny days mixed in with other species at pools of water on the roadside, sucking the water and squirting fine, silken threads of it from their rear. They also can be seen on animal dung feeding from the liquids it contains. Two species have been recorded on the island; the African Common Leopard;(Phalanta phalanta), and the Forest Leopard; (euritys eurytis).

Phalantas

5. Charaxes or Emperors are one of the most remarkable butterflies to see on the island. These are medium sized to very large, robust, showy, fast flying butterflies, usually inhabiting the upper canopy. Males are strongly territorial and are usually found perched on exposed leaves or twigs, frequently darting out to chase intruders. Females are found closer to food plants. Adults seldom feed on nectar, preferring tree sap (dozens may be seen at sucking holes; where beetle larvae have bored into the tree). Charaxes can also be observed on rotten fruit and animal dung, fighting for the space to feed where they can get vital minerals such calcium and iodine. Males are often found drinking at mud holes. Charaxes can be seen easily after rain sucking water from roadside puddles, and if you take a close look you will notice that they suck in the water and then squirt it out from their rear end. The Emperors you may see often during your visit to the island are Pearl Emperor; (Charaxes varanes varanes), Green-veined Emperor; (Charaxes candiope), Giant Emperor; (Charaxes castor), Large Blue Emperor; (Charaxes bohemani), Blue-spotted Emperor;(Charaxes Cithaeron) and Black Bordered Emperor; (Charaxes pollux).

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6. Forest Queen; Euxanthe wakefieldi. These are large tailless butterflies, and the sexually dimorphic females are black with spots of white and a bright yellow abdomen. The red, black and white males are often found on hilltops, while females stay near food plants. These butterflies are forest dwellers, with a fast-flying swooping motion.

female forest queen

Forest Queen

7. Common Sailor; Neptis laeta. Small to medium butterflies with distinctive black on white markings. These butterflies can be seen everywhere on the island flying and sailing with few wing beats above small trees on forest edges. Most insectivorous birds such as Pygmy Kingfishers and White Throated Kingfishers prey on these butterflies.

Sailor

A mating pair of Common Sailors- the female is on the left.

8. Diadems or Hyolimnas. Conspicuous, colourful butterflies, flying fast and strongly with a characteristic flap-glide action. Fond of fermented fruits and flowers, they are highly sexually dimorphic: males are black with white blotches while females are more robustly built and have a more powerful flight like the African Monarchs that they mimic. Two species have been recorded on Rubondo; the Common Diadem; (Hypolimnus misippus) and the Variable Diadem; (Hypolimnas anthedon wahlbergii).

Diadem Hypolimnas_missipus_Male

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Common Mother-of Pearl; (Salamis parhassus). These are large butterflies with squared-off wing margins and prominently hooked wingtips, with an untidy flapping flight. They are wary, and can move very quickly when attacked.They often settle on prominent leaves along forest edges, and in summer they are found all over the forest. During the dry season they concentrate on water edges, well camouflaged under large leaves. They are very fond of flowers. They are very aggressive to other butterflies, and have been observed fighting and chasing other species away from food or a mud puddle by using their powerful wings.

mother of pearl

10. Swallowtail or Paillionidaes. These are very large butterflies that can be found all over the forest. Males are often found on the forest edges inspecting flowers and females spend most of their time near food plants. Despite their names, Swallowtails are tailless except for the male Mocker Swallowtail, which is unmistakable due to the unique appearance of those two long tails and its bright, creamy yellowish colour. Other species of swallowtail that have been recorded on the Island are the Citrus Swallowtail; (Papilio demodecus), and the Green-banded Swallow tail; (Papilio nireus).

Swallowtail

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