Africa with a difference: searching for wildlife in Zanzibar

Until recently I have never had the good fortune to visit other African countries and see their wildlife. Yet that all changed 2 weeks ago when I touched down in Zanzibar with my family. It was also my first time visiting a tropical country, so that was another new experience in itself. Most of that holiday was in fact spent relaxing in the sheltered environment of Paradise Beach Resort on the East Coast but I was very keen to get out and see some of Zanzibar’s wildlife for myself. Luckily I did have a number of special encounters here, both in protected areas and inside the resort I was staying in.

A lot of people who go to Zanzibar will be focused on relaxing on a few palm fringed beaches with white sands and maybe visiting Stone Town, the islands only UNESCO world heritage site. I myself did both of those things, although I will say that when it comes to Stone Town large parts of its attractions, including the House of Wonders and The Fort, need some serious renovations and upliftment. Stone Town was interesting but I wanted to visit another of Zanzibar’s attractions: the Jozani Forest.

Despite not getting as much publicity as Stone Town, Jozani Forest is fortunately still popular with tourists. This is largely a result of Jozani Forest being the best place in the world to see the endemic and critically endangered Zanzibar red colobus monkey. These are perhaps the most beautiful of the colobus monkeys and the most range restricted. Only 2500 exist in the world and over half of them live in Jozani Forest, where their numbers are actually rising. Some of the troops here are surprisingly easy to approach and allow tourists to get very close. This is part of the reason why the colobus are the most photographed animals in Zanzibar.

I had an incredible experience with a troop of these monkeys when my family and I visited the Forest. We first spotted five feeding in the trees above us, their tails dangling down from the branches. We then were able to approach the rest of the troop feeding at the edge of the forest by the forest track. There were about 30 feeding on fruits and flowers in the trees here. They were very confiding and didn’t bat an eyelid as I approached to within a couple of metres to photograph them. I saw young monkeys with soulful big eyes and a large adult male, the leader of the troop. Their faces were eerily human-like in a number of ways, but they lacked opposable thumbs (apparently a unique colobus trait). Spending 20 minutes with this troop was one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had.

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An endangered Zanzibar red colobus monkey shrouded in leaves. This monkey was just one of a troop of about 30 that we were lucky enough to see (@Callum Evans).

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A baby red colobus contemplates a fruit that it was eating (@Callum Evans).

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Those eyes…  (@Callum Evans).

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The leader of the troop (@Callum Evans).

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One more for luck… (@Callum Evans).

The colobus monkeys were far from the only animal life in Jozani Forest. In fact the biodiversity here is so high that this place is proposed to become Zanzibar’s second world heritage site. This forest of mahogany and figs was different from other tropical forests because it was built on coral, the result of the island being part of an ancient sea bed that was forced up millennia ago. It was almost like walking on dry land and at the bottom of the sea at the same time. The guide who took us through the forest pointed out things we would never have noticed on our own. A giant millipede crossed the path ahead of us as we turned a corner and a little further on the guide found two microscopic frogs hiding in the leaf litter that were dark brown and blended in perfectly. It was amazing to think that a vertebrate could be that small, smaller indeed than most of the insects in the forest. Inside that tiny body was a brain, spine, digestive system and a heart and lungs. Yellow-rumped tinkerbirds and pigeons called from the tree tops, frustratingly never visible, and a dragonfly nymph clung to the bottom of a leaf in preparation for its metamorphosis.

As we entered a different part of the forest, the trees got smaller in stature and became more like thickets. Here, we found a pair of red-legged sun squirrels, who raced through the branches above our heads in search of insect larvae, coming incredibly close. A stunning green tree frog did its best to remain inconspicuous against the leaf it sat on. Further on, a number of Zanzibar blue monkeys (also known as sykes or samango monkeys) fed in the trees around us. Like the colobus, they were also very confiding and a treat to watch. The guide also mentioned how monitor lizards, bushpigs, duikers and 6 metre pythons are also found in the forests. We were also taken to a patch of pristine mangrove forest, another place where the boundary between land and sea seemed to become blurred. It was almost surreal to finally see one, see the air-breathing roots and the bizarre shapes that they formed and also the sheer number of crabs that foraged in the mud.

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A small tree frog does its best to remain inconspicuous (@Callum Evans).

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Sykes monkey’s fed alongside the colobus monkeys at Jozani. These monkeys have a range that extends from South Africa all the way up to Kenya. This monkey belonged to the Zanzibar subspecies (@Callum Evans).

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An incredibly tiny frog that was perfectly camouflaged in the leaf litter in Jozani Forest. The leaf next to it gives you an idea of just how small it is (@Callum Evans).

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A giant millipede ( ‘Tanzanian Train’) in a hurry (@Callum Evans).

It wasn’t just in Jozani where Zanzibar’s wildlife put on a show. At Paradise Beach Resort, huge colonies of Eastern golden weavers nested on cycads and other plants, providing me with plenty of photographic opportunities. Scarlet chested sunbirds, sombre greenbuls, lilac breasted rollers and dark-capped bulbuls were also regular visitors. But the real gems were two birds that are very hard to see in South Africa: broad billed rollers and yellow-rumped tinkerbirds. I was shocked to see both and even more shocked to see how small tinkerbirds are! Additionally, Western reef herons, a rare vagrant to Southern Africa, patrolled the beach at both low and high tide hunting fish. They were joined by green-backed, grey and black-headed herons too. In addition to all the birds, dozens of brightly coloured gecko’s clambered in the palm trees, fruit bats flew around at night with such speed I barely saw them, and a pair of East Coast red squirrels put in a brief appearance too.

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Colonies of eastern golden weavers were everywhere where there were enough trees near the coast (@Callum Evans).

It wasn’t just the heron I saw on Zanzibar’s coasts. The beaches were littered with a whole range of brightly coloured and bizarre shells, from giant spider conchs to cowrie’s. Dozens of crabs were visible on the beaches, ranging from tiny, almost transparent crabs to massive hermit crabs. There were also lots of fiddler and ghost crabs among the rocks and in the burrows that covered the beaches. When I went swimming in the bay where we were staying, I saw immense beds of sea grass that were home to huge numbers of sea urchins. I was very careful not to step on any of them. Marine life was actually pretty sparse here, with only a few fish (including three pipefish), a single massive red and white starfish, a little spotted jellyfish and a few sponges. Yet the disturbing thing was that I found lots of dead coral, sometimes forming ‘graveyards’. I don’t know if this was the result of tropical cyclones or something more sinister.

Perhaps the most memorable experience was when we took a taxi one morning to the south of the island to take a boat out to try and see dolphins. We went in a small speed boat and braved the surprisingly choppy ocean past the reef. We joined a cluster of boat searching for one of the local pods, but they hadn’t found anything yet. Suddenly, 6 dolphins popped up right next to the boat. They were so close I could see their beaks clearly as they surfaced. As we followed the pod (they were moving very fast), my dad, sister and I had the opportunity to jump into the water with masks and snorkels to try and see the dolphins underwater. The first two times I jumped in I only caught a glimpse. But the third time I jumped in I opened my eyes to see 6 six bottlenose dolphins emerge from the blue swimming side by side, their eyes fixed on me. They swam right past and below me, and I saw them swim past my dad. I was absolutely blown away. My sister opted out of that jump because a large surfaced right beneath her as she was about to jump!

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The beaches were littered with a variety of shells, like this giant spider conch (@Callum Evans).

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A western reef heron fishing at low tide in an area where sea grass beds would have been submerged several hours before (@Callum Evans).

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A hermit crab. The beaches around our resort were swarming with a diverse array of crabs, including fiddler crabs, ghost crabs and this hermit (@Callum Evans).

It is safe to say that Zanzibar provided me with an incredible array of wildlife experiences, added to the cultural side of Stone Town and the friends I made while staying at our resort. But I saw the reality of how many people in Zanzibar live, which reflects the poverty experienced across Africa. I saw how vast tracts of forests had vanished, leaving only second growth thickets and a few baobab trees. We found one small beach that was covered in washed up plastics, clothing and fishing nets and we even saw a blue monkey tethered to a tree by a length of rope around his waist. It is clear that there is still a lot of progress to be made. Reforestation is critical to restore the colobus’s habitat and the Zanzibar leopard is already presumed extinct. But I think that if more people, both locals and tourists, take the time to learn more about the islands natural heritage then there is a huge capacity for hope and, in the end, renewal.

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Mahogany trees in Jozani Forest (@Callum Evans).

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The clouds are rolling in (@Callum Evans).

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A bizarre world: the mangrove forests at Jozani (@Callum Evans).

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The storm hits. Without the tropical rainfall, Zanzibar would struggle to support the life it does (@Callum Evans).

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