Green Travel Magzine

Chumbe Island Coral Park: The Indian Ocean’s Secret Sanctuary Destination

In between the coasts of Tanzania and Zanzibar lies a tiny sanctuary known as Chumbe Island. There, amid the Indian Ocean, exists a tropical haven called Chumbe Island Coral Park: a private nature reserve, coral reef sanctuary, and eco-lodge. 

tropical shore palm trees wooden huts shrubbery aqua water
Source: Explore Tanzania

Setting the Tone

Chumbe Island Coral Park was created in 1991 for the sole purpose of conservation and sustainable development on the island. The innovative vision of the project’s founder, Sibylle Riedmiller, and her negotiations with the government enabled the establishment of the park. The park boasts a Coral Reef Sanctuary and Forest Reserve, both of which serve to protect rare wildlife in local aquatic and terrestrial habitats. Additionally, the benefits of the park also spill over to the Zanzibar archipelago in terms of replenishing fish stocks and revitalizing aquatic conditions. 

Situated with this diverse marine and terrestrial life, as well as the ability to cooperate with local fishermen as opposed to government enforcement, Chumbe Island is credited with establishing the first private Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the world. The Coral Reef Sanctuary has remained in a pristine state thanks to ongoing protection and projects which are funded by sustainable tourism operations. 

The sanctuary continues to be one of the most biodiverse reefs in the region, hosting 90% of East Africa’s hard coral species, and over 500 reef fish species. The reef plays a vital role in coastline protection, as well as in preserving natural breeding environments which offer a sanctuary for different species to repopulate overfished and environmentally degraded sea habitats. 

Roughly 90% of Chumbe Island is undisturbed, tropical forest, crowning the island as one of the last of its kind in Zanzibar. The forest protects over 178 different plant species that thrive in spectacular density. There is more magic to be found when you learn that these plants have evolved to survive without groundwater, because the coral base of the island is not suitable for freshwater storage. Roots sprout and splay serendipitously in all directions, and native plants cling to anything and everything they can in a gorgeous display of flora. 

The forest is also home to rare and endangered birds and crustaceans, and has a remarkably high population of Coconut Crabs – the largest terrestrial crab species. Some other wildlife species which can be found around Chumbe include Ader’s Duiker, one of Africa’s smallest mini-antelopes; Roseate Terns, a migratory aquatic bird that finds refuge from predators amongst the forest; endangered marine turtles such as the green and hawksbill turtles, who can be readily spotted feeding offshore; and humpback whales, who frequent the island’s coast in early fall.

sunset thatched roof cafe candlelit tables distant ocean
Source: Uniq Hotels

Longevity of Sustainability

All of the conservation efforts that maintain and protect local sea and land habitats are fueled by the island’s sustainable tourism initiative. Profits from tourism are allocated directly back into local conservation efforts, rather than being diverted to a larger corporation. Chumbe Island Coral Park also employs local residents in additional efforts to keep money within the community.

The eco-lodge has seven eco-bungalows situated between the beach and forest, housing tourists and creating access to responsible exploration of the wonders found on Chumbe Island. Under palm thatched roofs, visitors will find a king bed, a large living space covered in cultural art and filled with handmade furniture, a bed-style hammock for day time resting, and a self-contained bathroom with a shower, composting toilets, and washbasin. 

To supply water to residents, each bungalow collects its own freshwater supply from rainwater. After a complex purification process, the water is hand-pumped through a solar-powered heating and cooling system and stored for shower and washbasin use. The composting toilets do not require fresh water, and guest waste is transformed into nutrient-rich fertilizer for plant beds. 

Unlike other tropical tourist destinations, toxic waste-water never enters the reef during a guest’s stay in the bungalows. All lights are solar powered, and the bungalow’s open construction creates a natural air conditioner by maximizing drafts of fresh ocean air. All of their bungalows are built by local laborers and have a near-zero environmental impact. 

Nearly all of the project’s operations are carbon neutral, excluding tourist’s flights to and from Zanzibar. The eco-lodge also invests in regenerating and efforts, including restoration of the marine park, seagrasses, mangroves, and forests, which increases the carbon storage capacities of these marine habitats. 

aqua ocean coral reef beneath surface man in white boat blue skyline
Source: Marine Conservation Institute

Educational Awareness

Beyond the eco-lodge’s efforts to hire and educate locals on-the-job, they also build local environmental awareness through the Chumbe Environmental Education Program. This program is one of their most unique and vital efforts to their overall mission of sustainability. Free of charge, Chumbe Island Coral Park provides environmental education services for school children, teachers, fishers, community groups and government officials alike. These sponsored field excursions are prepared and taught by experienced environmental educators who train within the company, cultivating a caring and passionate group of teaching aids. 

The greater Zanzibar education system is based on a regimented standardized syllabus with little emphasis on the surrounding ecosystems. Thus, extra-curricular field excursions are rarely organized by school systems. The project, however, enables students of all ages to access experiential learning programs. The Chumbe Environmental Education Program also gives students free swim and snorkel lessons, which are typically absent from students’ outdoor education. The shallow water of the reef not only makes it an accessible environment to learn in, but it also provides students and visitors alike with the unique opportunity to explore and understand the diverse ecosystem more closely.

Moving Forward

The conservation achievements of Chumbe Island are rather extraordinary and inspiring. A member of the conservation management team notes that, “Chumbe Island is a beacon of hope in the world, whereby a small area in space inspire[s] generations of people locally and internationally and regenerate[s] nature to a point that [the island] is a biodiversity hotspot.” 

Continuing on, she mentions the “great pride [with]in the team,” their “strong team spirit,” and how “the majority of the staff have been with Chumbe since its early inception. So it’s the commitment of the team and a passion for sharing the love for this extraordinary island with visitors from near and far. And a pride that we have been one of the few, or only, examples in the world where we have been self-sufficient.” 

Rather than sourcing products and services from abroad, Chumbe demonstrates the sustainability and economic vitality in working with local craftsmen, artisans, fishermen, and other workers to supply these products to their island – supporting the local economy as well as garnering community support for the varying environmental projects. Chumbe Island’s achievements in sustainability stem from a deep passion to show the world that there is hope in mitigating the negative effects of development and tourism by reorienting our tourism practices toward regeneration and sustainability.

sandy beach reclining chairs green shrubbery wooden hut blue sky
Source: Uniq Hotels     

Want to learn more?

Chumbe Island Coral Park – Chumbe Island Coral Park

Chumbe Island – The Long Run

Henry Rohmer
Henry Rohmer is a student hailing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin but currently living and writing in Tacoma, Washington. He studied English and Environmental Policy and Decision Making at the University of Puget Sound and enjoys outdoor recreation, winter sports, and urban exploring, and traveling to new places.