Much of the history of the area takes place on the mainland. The early inhabitants south of Lake Victoria were hunter-gatherers; the landscape comprised fertile savannah, woodland and thickets of forest and on the shores of the lake, fishing was, and still is, the way of life.
By the 1100’s, Arab traders had settled in the area trading beads, cloth and eventually guns for ivory. They were also deeply involved in the slave trade. As in much of Tanzania and East Africa, many Arabs still live in the area as well as descendants of the earliest traders.
The most significant European explorer was Englishman John Hanning Speke who speculated from these southern shores that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile in 1858. Accompanied by Scotsman, James Grant, he proved his theory right by tracing the vast river from Lake Victoria to Alexandria in Egypt four years later.
The inhabitants of Rubondo island were most certainly fisher folk. They also cultivated land on the island, predominantly for banana and plantain. In 1965 the approximately 400 inhabitants were relocated to other islands and the mainland to make way for a wildlife sanctuary. Rubondo and its surrounding islands became a national park in 1977 and remains uninhabited except for a small contingent of park rangers, wildlife researchers and camp staff.
Over a four-year period (1966–1969) Professor Bernhard Grzimek (1909 -1987) of the Frankfurt Zoological Society released 17 chimpanzees in four cohorts onto Rubondo Island.
The chimpanzees were all wild-born and purportedly of West African descent, although there are no records of specific country of origin for the majority of released individuals. Rescued from various European Zoos and circuses, the chimpanzees had spent varying periods, from 3.5 months to 9 years, in captivity. The animals had no rehabilitation or pre-release training but after one year on Rubondo they were able to find and eat wild foods and construct nests for sleeping.
This was the first ever attempt to rehabilitate captive chimpanzees. They have now reverted to an unhabituated state characteristic of wild chimpanzees and remain secretive. From 16 founders the population has now grown to around 40 individuals (estimate based on nest counts).
In addition to chimpanzees, seven other species were introduced to the island: Roan antelope and rhinoceros, both now extinct, Suni antelope , elephant, giraffe, black-and-white colobus monkeys and African grey parrots confiscated from illegal trade.