Stella Marsden: Campaigner for chimp welfare

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The Independent Online

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.