Stella Marsden: Campaigner for chimp welfare

Stella Marsden was a pioneer in the conservation of man's closest relative, the chimpanzee. In the Gambia, the small country on the west coast of Africa where she lived for most of her life, she established the world's longest-running centre for restoring orphan chimpanzees to the wild. This Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust (CRT) is seen by the Gambia as a national treasure, and the project has inspired other primate-rehabilitation projects throughout the world.

Wild chimpanzees are, unfortunately, often orphaned when their mothers are killed for bushmeat. The youngsters are pulled from the body and often sold as pets or for the entertainment industry. Though adorable when young, chimps rapidly become unmanageable. By then, however, they have become habituated to human contact and cannot be quickly and safely restored to the wild. Stella Marsden was ahead of her time in understanding that rehabilitating young chimps takes not only infinite patience and determination (and a sense of humour when things go wrong), but also the support of local people. This she won by throwing herself into community projects, helping to establish a school and a clinic at her home village of Sambel Kunda.

Stella Margaret Brewer was born in the Seychelles in 1951, where her father, Eddie Brewer, a lifelong conservationist, worked as a forest officer. When she was six, the family relocated to the Gambia when Eddie was appointed director of the country's new wildlife department. Stella and her sister Heather enjoyed a happy few years in a house full of adopted animals. This idyll came to an abrupt end when, at the age of nine, she was sent to boarding school in north Wales. The bullying she endured there is said to have given her a well-developed sense of compassion and instinctive sympathy for the underdog.

In 1968, back in the Gambia with her schooling behind her, Marsden adopted her first orphan chimp, called William. More chimps followed, many of them confiscated from hunters and traders by the Gambian authorities. Stella saw them not so much as animals but as fellow sentient beings with a different way of communicating.

Seeking a long-term future for her growing band of orphans, she spent a few months with the famous Jane Goodall at Gombe in Tanzania, learning about the behaviour of wild chimpanzees. The experience gave her the idea of rehabilitating her chimps to Mount Asserik within a National Park in neighbouring Senegal. The attempt was adventurous; Marsden would even salvage meat from lion kills to vary the chimps' basic diet of dried fish.

She funded the project largely with the royalties from her bestselling 1978 book about chimpanzees, The Forest Dwellers. A 60-minute documentary, Stella and the Chimps of Mount Asserik, was made of the venture and shown on BBC2. A sequel, Return to the Forest, following the life of some of the chimps, followed 25 years later.

The Mount Asserik project failed when, during a period of drought and food scarcity, the resident wild chimps turned on the newcomers. Stella had no choice but to return to the Gambia with her chimps and try to rehouse them in what was intended as a temporary home on islands in the River Gambia National Park. Once her book royalties dried up, she found a new way of generating funds through sponsorship. In exchange for "adopting" a particular chimp, sponsors could follow its subsequent welfare and progress through twice-yearly newsletters. This proved successful enough to fund the rehabilitation project for the next 20 years.

The project was formally registered as a charitable trust, the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust, in 2000. Some 76 chimpanzees, many of them children or grandchildren of rescued orphans, now live on the island sanctuary by the Gambia River. A deliberately low-key Chimpanzee Visitor Camp, Badi Mayo, opened in 2006, from which the chimps can be viewed from boats.

By extending the idea of sponsorship to education, Marsden managed to transform the local school from a semi-derelict assortment of classrooms to a modern community centre with 12 teachers and more than 300 pupils. She also oversaw the foundation of a village clinic with a qualified nurse.

The Gambia has no tradition of equine welfare, and the horses which began to trickle across the border from Senegal in the 1970s are often poorly kept and suffer from malnutrition. In 2002, Marsden and her sister Heather Armstrong founded the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust to help farmers provide better care for their animals. The Trust, which is supported by the Gambian government, operates both as a sanctuary and as an educational resource.

In 1999 Marsden was made a knight in the Order of the Golden Ark, one of conservation's highest awards, by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. She was appointed OBE in the 2006 New Year's Honours for services to wildlife conservation and development in the Gambia. The same year she was conferred with an honorary doctorate in veterinary medicine and surgery by Glasgow University.

Peter Marren

Stella Margaret Brewer, wildlife campaigner: born 19 April 1951; OBE 2006; married 1977 David Marsden (two sons); died 24 January 2008.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower