Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust

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Stella's Obituary

Stella with Zwockel     Stella Brewer Marsden, who has died aged 56, was the pioneer of chimpanzee rehabilitation and the founder of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust (CRT). Rehabilitation is a lengthy process during which young orphan chimpanzees are provided with the physical and mental support necessary for them to thrive when reintroduced into a suitable natural environment. Stella was also a very early subscriber to the 'holistic' approach to wildlife conservation whereby the people living in the vicinity must benefit from the conservation effort if it is to be fully supported at the local level and so have a chance to be sustainable.

    In the late 1960s it started to become morally less acceptable and legally more difficult to traffic wild caught young chimps and use them in medical research and in entertainment and the pet trade. The confiscations that followed gave rise to a flow of young chimps for which an acceptable solution had to be found. Stella's project was the first to provide a solution and, thirty-five years later, there are now 18 projects in Africa attempting to do likewise. It is unfortunate that whilst the stream of orphans from the more traditional sources has diminished, the booming bush meat trade has more than made up the short fall.

    Stella was born, in 1951, in the Seychelles, where her father was a forest officer. Her family moved to The Gambia in 1957 where she had an idyllic childhood with a household of orphaned wild animals. It was the start of a lifelong affection for the country and its people. Aged nine she was sent to Dr Williams School in North Wales. Stella's first years at school were marred by bullying but this developed and tempered her empathy for the underdog and established in her an unusually strong sense of compassion.

    In 1968 the first orphan chimpanzee, William, came into her life and Stellaís future direction was established. After leaving school, she became totally involved with Williamís care and she remained in The Gambia. She described getting to know William as having a profound effect - "He was a sentient being just like me: he just looked different and the vocal communication was not always too clear to me."

    Other chimps soon followed. Pets that were no longer biddable or merely inconvenient were donated. Many were official confiscations: Spanish beach chimps used as photographic props; and chimps in illegal transit around the world for research or entertainment.

    Initially the chimps were held at Abuko Nature Reserve but a long term solution had to be found. In 1973 Stella spent a few months with Jane Goodall at the Gombe Stream research centre in Tanzania in order to learn something of wild chimpanzee behaviour. The following year, Stella and several orphaned chimpanzees left for Niokolo Koba National Park in Senegal where she planned to introduce them to the resident wild population. For much of the time she was alone and occasionally during the rains when streams became impassable torrents, she was cut off for weeks at a time. It was an adventurous time: treed by buffalo, chased and stung by African bees, stalked by lion - from whose kills she would carve off the odd joint to supplement the dried fish diet. Funding was a continual problem. The move to Niokolo Koba had been financed by the advance from Collins the publishers of her book, "The Forest Dwellers". The book, when published, was on the Times' best seller list for several weeks and translated into sixteen languages. The subsequent royalties from the book sustained, albeit precariously, the project for some time. The late Hugo van Lawick filmed and produced a documentary: Stella and the Chimps of Mt Asserik. It was widely acclaimed and widely distributed but alas generated no funding - for Stella at least.

    Stella's hopes of integrating her chimps with the wild population were not to be. Pushed into close proximity by a severe drought the wild chimpanzees began attacking the incomers. And so, after five years in the attempt, there was no choice but to return to The Gambia. In early 1979 they arrived at what was intended to be their temporary home in the River Gambia National Park.

    Searches for possible release sites in West Africa failed and the chimps remained in The Gambia. There are now 86 chimpanzees in this island national park of whom 19 are original 'rehabilitees' with the others being first and second generation offspring. In a recently published research paper Stella and others demonstrated that the demography of these chimps was no different to that of truly wild groups. By any measure, success had been achieved but it had taken almost three decades rather than the five or so years originally envisaged.

    When the book royalties had been exhausted, funding was primarily through one of the first animal adoption schemes. During a recent visit to Sweden - she met several adopters who told her with great pride that over the intervening years both they and their adopted chimps had each become grandparents.

    It was in part this unusual adoption scheme that led, in 1999, to her being appointed knight in the Order of the Golden Ark by HRH the late Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. As he invested Stella, Prince Bernhard commented to the gathering that he had also invested her father, Eddie Brewer, in the Order some years earlier.

    Stella realised that the need to secure the long term financial and strategic future of the chimpanzees was of paramount importance and she was convinced that the latter could only be achieved by a 'holistic' approach to wildlife conservation. In order to provide tangible benefits the local government primary school, which was struggling to survive, is now supported by the CRT with 12 teachers and over 300 pupils. A village clinic with a qualified nurse has also been established. Stella, with her sister Heather Armstrong, set up the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust in 2002 to help farmers provide better care and management of their animals. This not only improves animal health and welfare but significantly increases both longevity and productivity of the draft animals.

    To help address both her financial and strategic concerns Stella established a visitor facility - known as Badi Mayo - which opened in 2006. Designed as a high value, low impact facility and sleeping only eight visitors in four safari tents, it allows the chimps to be viewed from small boats in a way that maintains their dignity whilst minimizing the risk of disease transfer. It has been well reviewed by tour operators and visitors. It never failed to impress Stella that visitors find the experience of looking directly in to the eyes of their nearest non-human primate relatives to be such an awesome - and unsettling - experience.

    HRH Princess Lalla Amina of Morocco, a recent visitor to Badi Mayo, wrote in the visitor book, "Louis Armstrong sang, 'What a wonderful world', but for me being here it is more than that - it is a piece of paradise".

    Stella was appointed OBE in the 2006 New Year's Honours for services to wildlife conservation and development in The Gambia. Later the same year she was conferred with the honorary degree of doctor of veterinary medicine and surgery by the University of Glasgow for her work in conservation and equine welfare.

    Stella married, in 1977, David, who survives her with her sons, John and Daniel. Her family will continue with her work to ensure the long term welfare of her chimpanzees.

    Stella now lies alongside Zwockle on the mainland opposite Island 2 with her spirit keeping a watching eye over her chimps.

    There will be a memorial service on 19 April 2008 at Cheltenham College Chapel time to be advised.

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