The process of chimpanzee habituation

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By Dr. Paco Bertolani

Interview by Ryan Green

Dr. Paco Bertolani, as mentioned in the previous blog post, will be at the forefront of the project to habituate the wild-born descendants of the chimps released on Rubondo Island in the 1960s.

Chimpanzees in the wild have a deeply ingrained fear and mistrust of human beings, and at the first sight of an approaching person they will flee immediately. “However, some people think that this fear of humans is the direct consequence of some previous bad experience with humans, i.e. hunters.” says Dr. Bertolani. “This idea is somehow supported by the fact that in very remote areas where it is likely that chimpanzees have never seen humans, the chimpanzees seem more fearless than in other places. Unfortunately these remote areas do not exist any more, thus this hypothesis is basically impossible to test. It is correct that all wild chimpanzees fear humans, but whether this fear is innate or learned we don’t really know.”

This makes the process of studying their behaviour in a natural state extremely difficult- until they have become habituated to the presence of humans; it is impossible to closely observe them.

Dr. Jane Goodall was the first person to acclimatise a community of chimps in the 1960s in Gombe Stream in Tanzania. As described in her book In the Shadow of Man, she spent many frustrating months attempting to get closer to the Kasakela chimpanzee community in order to study them.

In his experiences of habituation processes in Taï National Park in Côte d’Ivoire, Dr. Bertolani has made some interesting observations in how this is achieved, utilising known social behaviours and primate psychology.

“It is best to approach a party of chimpanzees alone, and to sit quietly in a visible place at a distance that the chimps feel comfortable with,” he says, “ this allows them to see you from the safety of their comfort zone.” By displaying a non-threatening posture, wearing drab clothing, moving slowly and maintaining the maximum distance to keep them in sight, the apes can gradually become more accustomed to seeing a human. “In dense forest however, this can be extremely difficult as visibility in this habitat is poor, leading to the chimps being surprised when sighting a person, and immediately fleeing.”

This is one of the reasons the process of habituation is extremely time-consuming and frustrating, taking years to achieve in every instance.

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Mike Wilson, former director of field research at Gombe Stream Research Centre, wrote: “The general rule of thumb is that each individual primate needs about 100 hours to get used to people. In species that travel in cohesive troops, like baboons, every member of the group can see you every time you make contact, so the 100 hours go by fairly quickly, about 3 months. Chimpanzees take longer to habituate, because the entire social group rarely comes together. Individual chimpanzees often travel alone or in small subgroups, so it can take many years for every member of the group to become habituated. In forest sites, such as Kibale National Park in Uganda or Taï National Park in Côte d’Ivoire, habituation of chimpanzees without provisioning [feeding] has taken 5 or 6 years. Habituation may take even longer in savanna sites such as Semliki, Uganda, where chimpanzees range over huge areas and only rarely encounter researchers.”

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“It was thought that savannah chimpanzees were impossible to habituate, but Fongoli chimpanzees in Senegal became habituated in a relatively short time, even when compared with forest chimpanzees elsewhere. We are talking four or five years, but the Semliki chimpanzees are still not habituated.” Says Br. Bertolani.

As recorded by Dr. Goodall, the first chimpanzee to tolerate her was a male that she named David Greybeard. In order to do this, she set up a feeding station that attracted him, and then eventually another male, Goliath. This approach has subsequently been criticised, but at the time, it was the only thing that worked.

“Usually a male will be the first to become tolerant of a human presence,” Dr. Bertolani notes, “as they are normally bolder by nature. What you then hope to achieve is to use this male’s tolerance to influence the rest of the community. The next step is to habituate females, who are naturally more wary and protective of their offspring.”

What happens next is reliant on ingrained biological urges that occur when hormones take over: “When a female comes into oestrus, males seek them out in order to mate, and this is where we hope that she will be followed by a male that is comfortable with a human presence. If the male is relaxed, she will overcome her natural fear in order to present to the male.” He says.

This interplay of hormonal biology and psychology has been the keystone to success on many occasions, where once a female tolerates an observer’s presence, she could pass on this behaviour to her offspring, but this is not always the case. In some instances, mothers have been habituated, but their juvenile offspring have not, or vice versa.

This is the enormous task that awaits Dr. Bertolani on Rubondo Island: to habituate a community of chimps that have all been born in the wild. “This is my primary goal, with the secondary aim being to directly observe them in a natural state once this has been achieved. There are many questions related to this community that I would like to discover the answers to.”

To read Dr. Bertolani’s paper on habituation in Taï National Park, click here

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Dr. Paco Bertolani – Seeking the soul of the ape.

Paco Bertolani

By Ryan Green

Dr. Paco Bertolani holds a PhD. in Biological Anthropology, and is a specialist in chimpanzee habituation.

The population of chimpanzees on Rubondo Island has been mentioned in previous articles: how they came to be there by the efforts of the great conservationist Professor Bernard Grzimek. From a core group of 16 released back into the wild over several years in the 1960s, this community now numbers around 40 individuals, and they are all wild-born. Dr. Bertolani will now be at the forefront of a project to habituate these wild chimps on Rubondo Island National Park.

This presents a unique opportunity for studying their behaviour, population dynamics and even genetic diversity, but in order to do that, these wild chimps must first be habituated to a human presence. In a completely natural state, chimpanzees have an innate fear of humans, and will flee at the first sight of people, as Dr. Jane Goodall famously noted in recording her attempts at habituating the chimps at Gombe Stream, which was the first time this had been done.

The first thing you notice about him is the tattoo on his brow that makes him look remarkably like a chimpanzee. In fact, he was given this tattoo by a tribe of Mentawai hunters in Sumatra, Indonesia while he lived among them in 1990. The next thing you notice is the intensity of his gaze, both inquisitive and penetrating at the same time, able to notice and interpret the subtlest nuances of body language, facial expressions and non-verbal communication clues from his subjects. Both of these must be of huge benefit to someone studying anthropoid apes, and judging by his success, they must be.

He has a great depth of experience in his field, having been involved in chimp studies in several research projects across Africa, and in two cases he was directly involved in habituating the animals to human presence before they could be studied further by direct observation.

In his first study, he went to Taï National Park in Cote d’Ivoire, where the chimps had been part of a habituation project for four years, and at that time, one female, Zora, was tolerating a human presence. After a year, he had successfully habituated several more individuals, mostly males, which then led to the rest of the study community becoming accustomed to human observers. This led to the direct observation of their behaviour of nut-cracking, using a rock and a stone anvil. This might not sound like an earth-shattering behavioural trait, but it has huge implications in the fields of biological anthropology and psychology. This behaviour was deemed to be cultural: studies since the 1980s have shown it only occurs among specific groups of chimpanzees in West Africa, and isn’t found elsewhere. This is especially obvious where populations are separated by rivers, where on one side they have the “knowledge” of nut-cracking, on the other they don’t.

He wrote his dissertation for the University of Rome on the habituation process and behaviour of a female that reared an adopted infant in addition to her own baby, which was unusually altruistic behaviour not commonly encountered in the wild.

Then, during a sojourn of several years, he studied turtles in South America and worked for an institute of statistics in his hometown, Rome.

Eventually, Africa and chimpanzees called him back, and in 2004 he found himself in Senegal, once again working on habituating a community that lived in the arid, mosaic-savannah habitat of Fongoli. This site had particular interest to researchers as it was very similar to the environment that created early man, and the behaviour of chimps there might lead to vital clues to our understanding of our own early development.

Dr. Bertolani also worked on the habituation of the chimps, a process that had started several years before his arrival. After many months of sometimes very frustrating work, he says, he managed to win over the acceptance of the group, until he was able to follow them and observe their behaviour. It was at this point that he made an astounding discovery. Several of the chimps, mostly females and adolescents, were making spears by selecting a branch, stripping off the leaves and sharpening the point with their teeth. They then used these spears to hunt bushbabies, small nocturnal primates that hide in tree crevices during the day. This was the first recorded instance of a non-human primate regularly using tools to actively hunt vertebrates. The discovery caused a sensation around the world, and this behaviour has now been observed many times and been the subject of a National Geographic documentary. Another observation he made was of the chimps here bathing in pools of water to escape the terrific summertime heat, which was extraordinary in itself, as chimps are notoriously afraid of water.

For his next project, Dr. Bertolani found himself in Kibale National Park, Uganda, where a group of chimpanzees where being studied by Professor Richard Wrangham. This group had taken ten years to habituate, and Dr. Bertolani suspects this was due to the fact that groups of people used to venture into the forest where the chimps were, as opposed to a single person, which is the method he prefers. It was here that he worked on his PhD. study for the University of Cambridge, which was on the home-range use and spatial orientation of the chimps in the forest, i.e. how they must have made a mental map of their environment in order to navigate their territory in search of food and water.

His habituation project on Rubondo Island National Park is set to become the subject of a new National Geographic documentary – in the next blog post Dr. Bertolani’s will discuss his plans for the chimpanzees, and how he will go about the enormous task that awaits him.

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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.

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A one-ton lawnmower and manure spreader

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 The African Darter (a rare visitor to Rubondo Island)

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Early morning view of Lake Victoria from our bedroom

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Rubondo Island Camp Accommodation

Bee eaters

European Bee Eaters

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Heroic Fish Eagle

Stork

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

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Butter couldn’t melt in that mouth

Perch

Habibu, Deus and the Battle Tank

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The Tree House bedroom

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The Tree House en-suite bathroom and tub

Muganza

Muganza photographic studio

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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!

 

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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.

 

rubondo airstrip rubondo chalet rubondo pool rubondo1

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!