Sibylle Riedmiller is an Earth Changer.

Sibylle Riedmiller established Chumbe Island Coral Park, the first Marine Protected Area in Tanzania and the first Private Marine Park in the world, with no government support nor donor aid. Sibylle was recently awarded the Order of Merit Cross from the Federal Republic of Germany for her tireless commitment to conserving Tanzania’s environment and natural resources. Here she explains how it came about.


I came to Tanzania in the early 80s as a foreign aid worker, I’d been working with the aid industry for 2 decades in Latin America and Africa, in education reform, but had got disillusioned with the failure of most government-led aid projects.

I came to Zanzibar in 1991 for a consultancy job on education planning. Zanzibar’s a coral island yet I found little awareness about coral reefs among the Zanzibari people; schools didn’t teach anything either. I just love coral reefs, but I found out there was quite a prevalence of dynamite fishing, decimating coral to mere rubble and affecting fishing, with no marine conservation, legislation or lobby to drive sustainability or governance apparent.

There was little awareness of the importance of corals in zanzibar in the 1990s

There was little awareness of the importance of corals in zanzibar in the 1990s

If you talk to the fishermen about corals, in Swahili, the language of the country's people, they say “matumbawe” – ‘rocks and stones’. To them, you only break big stones into smaller stones, so why did foreigners get upset about it? They didn’t understand the problem. There was a huge need for education to create awareness. So I made proposals to the government for a small education marine park for learning about natural marine resources and to snorkel – funded by tourists, so tourism could pay for the conservation of corals and at the same time education of local school children and fishermen.

After 2 months travelling round zanzibar, sibylle found chumbe island

After 2 months travelling round zanzibar, sibylle found chumbe island

I travelled around the whole island for two months with local fishermen searching for a suitable coral reef for the plan, and finally ‘discovered’ Chumbe Island, 8 miles south west of Zanzibar Town, bordered on its western shore by a fringing coral reef of exceptional biodiversity and beauty. It appeared an abandoned place but with signs of past glory; two historic buildings, a small mosque and a lighthouse built by the Sultan of Zanzibar, both constructed during colonial rule around the turn of the 20th century.

The government weren’t interested. But then Zanzibar’s invitation for foreign investment in tourism brought an opportunity - I could see the future of marine conservation was in private section tourism.

Previously I think people only thought, as a private person, you could get control over land as a contractual set-up with government, not sea, which is not normally property.

"I thought, ‘okay why not do it myself?’

I became a quite innovative social entrepreneur in that respect. Then came the challenge of making it work!

It had to be a win-win situation, for ecotourism and local fishermen."


Tanzania is very different on the surface to how it works. For tourism, it looks very attractive and idyllic, but local communities are poor and depend on fishing so if you talked to them about catch-and-release, they would think you come from outer space. There’s no option of even sparing the wonderful Guitar shark from being eaten, they needed it to eat and to get money.

The biggest challenge was dynamite fishing, all along the coast, every day, relentlessly, irreparably devastating the country's coral reefs, among the most fragile ecosystems on earth, and bringing the deaths of hundreds of fish at a time. We’re talking about organized crime here: It was illegal fishing with big people behind it and local fishermen employed to do it, so very hard to fight.

On top of that, you get a coral trade, and of course like the rest of the world, over-development, pollution and coral bleaching. But the biggest challenges were dynamite fishing and over-fishing. As a result, Tanzania coral reefs were in dire straits.

So we had to make people understand that coral reefs have a value without taking them out. That a manta is one meal for a few people only, but it’s income for many, over many years, if it's used for ecotourism and if benefits are shared. But those people who would otherwise eat the manta have to benefit from it living. So how could we do that?

Chumbe Island Coral Park: pioneering Tourism for Conservation & Community

Chumbe Island Coral Park: pioneering Tourism for Conservation & Community

Chumbe Island Coral Park Reef : The world's first private marine protected area

Chumbe Island Coral Park Reef : The world's first private marine protected area

In Tanzania and many parts of Africa, conservation is at odds with local communities, seen as something only foreigners can enjoy.

Tourists come to see the wild animals, which local people see as a threat. The reality in terrestrial parks is that local people have to be moved for the animals to thrive: Terrestrial parks exclude local people. Plus wildlife can be damaging and dangerous: elephants trampling their fields, women being attacked or kids taken by lions on the way to school or to the water. Plus, locals are not allowed to hunt them for bush meat, a traditional practice, because they’re all government property.  Understandably, locals see wild animals as life-threatening and not enjoyable. So human-wildlife conflict is a serious concern. Some projects try to compensate, but how can you compensate for life lost? Terrestrial parks sharing benefits of conservation tourism with local people can end up in endless struggles over how much to pay, and it would never be enough.

Chumbe Island Coral Park - now surrounded by a No Take Zone for fishing

Chumbe Island Coral Park - now surrounded by a No Take Zone for fishing

I came to realise we have a huge advantage of being a marine park over terrestrial: You can have a no-take zone of no-fishing, no-anchorage. It means you have to exclude fishermen from an area and they must agree to it, but it creates fish nurseries and a very beneficial ‘spill-over effect’ because there's no human-wildlife conflict and fishermen get more harvest outside the area. As soon as that became obvious in the mid-90s, enforcement was no problem, and local fishermen respected the park boundaries. But it has to be well managed - and that's the challenge.

Most marine parks in the world are actually ‘paper parks’ - they are not managed at all, or they are poorly managed. There are major governance issues. To create a park authority means creating central bureaucracy which takes the resource control away from local people. You end up with bureaucrats looking after a conservation area park but what do they care when they have no connection to it?

Rangers are not normally former fisherman. They are people who have been educated to a certain level, they come to Tanzania from upland areas, they don't speak the language of fishermen and they have no idea about fish. So relationships are poor.
And park authorities coming into an area crowd out local initiatives by default, and so end up having poor relationships with both fishermen and the tourism sector because the tourism sector depends on a well-managed resource and if it doesn't work of course everybody suffers.

"for a marine park to function well, Start Small and Private" - Chumbe Island

"for a marine park to function well, Start Small and Private" - Chumbe Island

So there's a new paradigm for park management which involves local communities but also the private sector because if you want to have tourism you need private sector investment to create the minimum infrastructure required: Ecotourism has a vested interest in conservation, and profits are a condition for sustainability.

If you want a park to function well I would say start small and start private: Private investment in marine conservation can be a private marine park like Chumbe Island Coral Park; it can also be different management contracts for zones; no-take zones in larger parks may be given by park authorities to a tourism operator; it can also be support of monitoring, surveillance, training and marketing by dive operators.

In Tanzanian marine parks, dive boats are out every day. The Park Authority claims they don't have fuel for boats.  So it is the dive boats that see the illegal fishing, poaching happening within the park, and they try to report it but nobody wants to listen to them because of the poor relationship between tourism and the Park Authorities.

So it was with the backdrop of witnessing all this happening over many years that I created Chumbe Island Coral Park (CHICOP Ltd), registered in 1992 in Zanzibar/Tanzania for the purpose of conservation of Chumbe Island. The park includes a 30-hectare no-take marine reef sanctuary and a coral-rag forest reserve covering most of the island's 22 hectares.

It was a good candidate for conservation: Uninhibited, due to no fresh water source and a military no-go area location in the shipping channel between Dar Es Salaam, the largest city and port in Tanzania, and Zanzibar, where small sailing boats were not permitted, obstructing bigger shipping vessels. So no one had to be displaced and fishing was already disallowed on its western side. Conditions appeared ideal for the creation of a marine park that depended on co-operation with local fishermen, not government enforcement.



Maintaining the integrity of the island's pristine ecosystems for posterity and education is CHICOP's mission. Objectives of the company from the very beginning were to have a marine park and forest reserve, with the whole island totally closed, totally managed, and to make conservation pay for itself through state-of-the-art facilities and the best ecotourism: Not-for-profit objectives operated commercially to make profit to run, a financial condition of sustainability, with wide stakeholder participation sourced for the management plans set out from 1995 to 2016.

Chumbe Island Bungalows, pristine Marine Park & forest Reserve

Chumbe Island Bungalows, pristine Marine Park & forest Reserve

I lobbied the government and had four hard years of challenging negotiations with seven departments, including a decisive meeting with the President, and got approval from the government of Zanzibar in 1993 including the western fringing coral reef and island forest designated protected areas. Chumbe Island was gazetted as the first marine park in Tanzania as the Chumbe Reef Sanctuary and Forest Reserve in 1994 and 1995, plus registered with the United Nations Environment Program’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre in 1995 under the IUCN category II. It took another 4 years to develop the ecotourism infrastructure on the island until, after 8 years of development, Chumbe Island Coral Park could finally open in 1998.

Not a single tree was cut and only empty clearings left by nature used for building the eco-lodge, guest bandas (bungalows), visitor education centre and staff quarters, all constructed combining traditional building styles and materials with state of the art eco- architecture and technology so all buildings on the island are close to zero environmental impact; all energy is solar including water heating; rainwater catchment for fresh water, zero sewage composting toilets with no flush as water is too sparse; vegetative grey water filtration for any shower water and kitchen water, to get the nutrients out and put them into the compost.

The ecolodge with only 7 bungalows has to fund the whole thing. As the project development lasted eight years and cost three times more than planned, and as eco-technology was costly even just for operational maintenance let alone set-up, it became quite expensive, so we had to go up-market. If we’re able to cover main park costs with less than full occupancy, any difference can be invested into the sustainable development programmes.

ChumBe Island Community Staff

ChumBe Island Community Staff

The successful integration of environment and community is important for sustainable tourism.  We had to win community support: Village meetings, employing local people with preference, getting fishers to agree to become rangers, for which they had to be trained for years because you actually need a long period on the job to become good rangers and tourism guides, with training by volunteers so we could afford it and employ their enthusiasm. But then the trained rangers can educate fishers because they have been fishers in their former lives.

We established an Advisory Committee with CHICOP management, Government, academics and local village representatives, which meets at least twice per year for discussions about achievements, challenges and developing the management plans.

Environmental Education programmes had to start with the government and fishermen, local school children and local communities. By mid-2015 we had taught over 6,500 schoolchildren, 1,100 teachers and 700 community members and helped to raise conservation awareness and understanding of the legal and institutional requirements and support among government officials.

Chumbe Island education programme includes teaching muslim Girls to Snorkel

Chumbe Island education programme includes teaching muslim Girls to Snorkel

I was concerned about the challenge for marketing - if you have people in only seven bungalows spending 300 dollars per person per night, they might not want school children around being taught at the same time. I wondered whether we’d need to split low/high season or something, but actually our guests love to help the kids, fitting on masks and learning to snorkel. We’re delighted they have a great experience and to be at the top on Trip Advisor of all 160+ Zanzibar hotels for the last 5 years.

Girls snorkelling was another question: Zanzibar is Muslim country and state religion so women never learn how to swim, because they would have to undress a little, so girls and boys come separately and girls are taught how to snorkel, how to swim in the sea, and for the first time in their life they see a living coral. It's amazing to witness how much they love it and want to come back.

In terms of conservation, we had a huge challenge to remove invasive species and threats, such as rats which were accidentally introduced in the early 1900's, and an epidemic of COTs (Crown-of-Thorns starfish) that eat the corals, of which we had to remove thousands physically, plus controlling numbers of Indian House Crows and Diadema Sea Urchin.

Now, after over 20 years of protection, we have more than 450 fish species, from more than 50 fish families, more than 200 species of hard coral representing ninety percent of all coral species found in Africa on only one kilometre stretch of reef, plus turtles permanently resident because they are protected and find enough to feed on in the no-take zone.

The virgin Chumbe forest reserve, of which there are very few left in East Africa like it, also harbours extremely rare and endangered species, such as giant coconut crabs, the largest land crabs on earth, endemic Aders Duiker antelopes and seabirds such as Roseate Terns.

In 2012, Chumbe Island Coral Park was mentioned as a model for Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) by the UN Secretary General in his report to the General Assembly on "Protection of Coral Reefs for Sustainable Livelihoods and Development", in preparation for the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, June 2012.

in 2016 Sibylle Riedmillerwas awarded the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germanyby the German Ambassador, Mr. Egon Kochanke,

in 2016 Sibylle Riedmillerwas awarded the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germanyby the German Ambassador, Mr. Egon Kochanke,

For her part, 25 years after she first swam in the waters off Chumbe Island, in 2016 Sibylle Riedmiller was awarded the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, by the German Ambassador, Mr. Egon Kochanke, who recognized Ms. Riedmiller as “an outstanding conservationist and activist working for the environment and natural resources of this beautiful country."

As a Board member of the Hotel Association of Tanzania (HAT) and the Tanga Tourism Network Association (TATONA) Sibylle Riedmiller also works for the protection of wider natural resources in Tanzania, addressing challenges such as coastal blast fishing, infrastructure developments threatening parks, and researching and preserving heritage buildings in Tanzania.

"For such a small park, we’re very proud to have become a successful sustainable tourism destination, the first privately established and self-sustaining Marine Protected Area in the world, a model of financially, ecologically and socially sustainable marine park management for other places. And we hope for the kids, corals are not just ‘matumbawe’ rocks and stones any more but a living thing".

SEED madagascar fort dauphin - freddie mercury Charity day

How You Can Be an Earth Changer:

All guests at Chumbe Island directly support the Coral Park's highest standards in sustainability in conservation whilst fostering cultural stewardship and community development including local and national education programmes. The income from the ecolodge guests is what makes it all possible.

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Sibylle present Chumbe Island Coral Park at TEDxSeaPoint (left)