By Sibylle Riedmiller, Director at Chumbe Island When I first came to Tanzania in 1980 as the Project Manager of an aid education programme, I quickly developed a passion for the tropical marine environment. Spending my free time sailing, snorkelling and diving in the ocean, I was mesmerised by the vibrant coral reefs and the stunning diversity of underwater wildlife that makes this coastline of East Africa so special.
Photo Credit: Chumbe Island
However, I was also witness to frequent destructive fishing activities using explosives all along the coast, and it quickly became apparent that the people of the area (from local fishers to government officials) were largely unaware of the damaging impact of this practice. With corals referred to as ‘rocks and stones’ few people seemed aware that reefs are living organisms that form incredibly complex biodiverse and beautiful communities and are a precious, natural resource that underpins livelihoods throughout the region. Not only are these habitats vital for fishery productivity and food security, they are also of immense attraction for marine-based tourism and local income generation.
I felt that there was an urgent need for education, conservation and awareness raising. So, in 1991 I decided to invest in setting up a small not-for-profit marine conservation area that could be used for environmental education, which would be funded by ecotourism. I spent two months exploring the waters around Zanzibar with local fishers, looking for a suitable coral reef that was still in good enough condition, shallow enough for people to snorkel, and where a base could be established for education and tourism activities.
When I came across Chumbe Island, on 21st April 1991 (precisely 30 years ago), I knew I had found the perfect place! The uninhabited island was home to a stunning fringing reef, intertidal seagrass beds, a mangrove cave, a semi-arid impenetrable forest growing on fossil coral rock, as well as a historic lighthouse and ruined buildings in need of preserving. I decided then and there to campaign for Chumbe’s total protection, turning the island into the sanctuary is has become. Chumbe is now home to a wealth of rare and endangered flora and fauna. Green and hawksbill turtles frequent the reef, along with sharks, dolphins and rays, while the forest is populated by giant coconut crabs, Aders’ duiker antelopes and breeding roseate terns.
Following this ‘discovery’, it took four years of complex negotiations, local community engagement, recruitment and training of fishers to become park rangers, and for the investment plan to be approved and Chumbe to be gazetted by the Zanzibar Government as a legally recognised Marine Protected Area (MPA). After this, it took another four years to complete the eco-design and construction of the Education Centre and Ecolodge, complete with rain water harvesting, solar energy, composting toilets and vegetative greywater filtration systems.
Chumbe began sustainable ecotourism operations in 1998, launching its extensive environmental education programme in the same year, and becoming, to our knowledge, the first privately established and managed MPA in the world. And up until 2020 (when the pandemic brought tourism to a grinding halt) Chumbe was also one of the few financially self-sustaining MPAs, with the ecolodge generating all the funds needed for conservation management and education programs for local schools and community members. But this is not my story alone. The local staff recruited, and a suite of volunteers and expert supporters engaged since 1992, helped transform this hidden jewel into the world renowned and multi-award winning place it has become, a sustainable showcase for a sustainable Blue Economy. Meet the team Omar Ame Nyange I started working in 1992 as the Chumbe’s first marine park ranger. I was a fisher at that time and often used corals to weigh down my fishing traps – little did I know back then that corals are alive! The more I learned about marine conservation through my work, the more I changed and I also started teaching others about the importance of our marine environment. In 1995 I became the Head Ranger of Chumbe, and for the past 26 years I’ve not only been training and leading the ranger team to ensure our island is protected and safeguarded, but I’ve also been leading coral reef monitoring and research activities. I’ve grown through numerous training opportunities and thanks to my swimming teacher, I even survived the 2004 tsunami which took me by surprise while working on the reef. I am very proud that we are celebrating Chumbe’s 30th anniversary this year. Ali Bashiru I started working for Chumbe in 1994 as a labourer to help build the ecolodge and education centre. Now, I am the Head of Maintenance. I love working on Chumbe and showing people about sustainable ecotourism in the protected area. When I first began I couldn’t speak any English, but now, over the past 26 years I have learnt to confidently speak English with the staff and with guests. Eleanor Carter When I first stepped foot on Chumbe in the mid-nineties, it was still in the formative stages of development, and I instantly knew it was where I belonged. Sibylle’s holistic approach to education and conservation was new to the world, and exciting. Becoming Chumbe’s first Project Manager was an honour (and a learning curve!). The challenges were considerable. But to develop something that continues to thrive more than a quarter of a century later is almost unprecedented in the world of conservation. And to see the growth in awareness through the education programmes makes me inordinately proud of the team. Masoud A. Soud I love the conservation of the reef and engagement of our communities in protecting our MPA. I am impressed by the Chumbe team’s motivation and ability to create positive experiences for our students and guests. As the Administrative Manager, I feel proud working in this sustainable and unique project. Ben Taylor I am a marine biologist from the UK and it was always been my dream to work for Chumbe ever since learning about the project during my studies in marine science. Since joining the team as Project Manager I am even more inspired by the island, its holistic sustainability approach and the incredible team, who are the life and soul of Chumbe. Enock Kayagambe I started working in Chumbe in 2012 when I was employed fresh from school to assist the Conservation and Education Programme. Through my work, I get many opportunities to learn, interact, and network with like-minded people around the world. Chumbe has become my professional home and life, and thanks to the project, I believe that I can become a proficient conservationist in the global community. Ulli Kloiber As a marine biologist from Austria, I fell in love with the project when I joined Chumbe as a volunteer ranger trainer in 2011. Coordinating Chumbe’s conservation and education programs together with a very passionate team for the past 10 years has been an incredible journey, both personally and professionally, and I’m looking forward to seeing Chumbe continue to thrive for decades more.