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Walk on the wild side
Against the herds of elephant, ferocious lion prides and flocks of pink flamingos on the mainland, Zanzibar may look tame. But there’s more fauna on the archipelago than many people realise. Zanzibar’s unique species are endemic and sometimes much more elusive than the average beachcomber is used to.
Some odd names are on the list. The Zanzibar Bishop (a bird), the tiny Blue Duiker (pronounced die-cur) and the Zanzibar Suni (not Islamic, but mammalian). Found on the isolated Mnemba atoll off the north coast, it is also known as the dwarf antelope and for good reason; it only reaches 15 inches in height. The Suni antelope had to shrink to fit onto the islands, where competition for resources is much higher than on the mainland.
Conversely, tropical climates tend to make insects bigger. The islands have provided the perfect climate to breed giants, such as giant butterflies that fly, amongst other places, in Pete village’s Zanzibar Butterfly Centre. Here you can the enormous 'flying handkerchief', but there are even bigger and more elusive butterflies to be seen in the countryside. And it’s not only butterflies. Most of the insects in Zanzibar have also swollen up and metamorphosed into gigantic counterparts of their cold-climate cousins. Giant millipedes crawl over the forest floors, with one species of the giant land snail (Achatina reticulata) often measuring over 15cm in length.
As well as supersized insects, the giant rat (Cricetomys gambianus cosensi), an extremely rare find, reaches up to a metre in length including the tail... Even more bizarre is the giant coconut crab. This odd crustacean eats coconuts, crawling up the palm trees to harvest them by cracking the shells open with his enormous claws. On the southern coast of Pemba island they are known as ‘tuu’. Coconut crabs are endangered and definitely not edible, but you can see them if you're lucky enough on Chumbe island where they are abundant in the protected coral rag forest.
Of Zanzibar’s 54 terrestrial mammals, 23 species are bats. Called ‘popo’ in Swahili, bats almost define the shift between day and night in Zanzibar, swarming in some areas. Although you might find bats creepy, these nocturnal pilots are responsible for the prolific fruit trees found on the islands, depositing seeds as they fly and pollinating flowers. If you’re a night owl you might also find the bush tailed mongoose. It inhabits the coral rag forest of the south-eastern coast of Unguja and the deep soil areas on the western side of Pemba, and is known as ‘chongwe’ to local hunters.
The nocturnal Zanzibar tree hyrax, with four ‘toes’ on its front feet and three on its back, is common in Jozani forest. This hyrax is believed to be the first hyrax species adapted to forest life and you can see them in ZALA Park, just 5kms from Jozani Forest.
Animals have been deeply connected to witchcraft here for undreds of years and the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) is the local legend and mythical spook. 'Chui' is a mythical creature that is still reported to prowl Unguja’s forests. The leopards are deeply entrenched in the islands’ superstitions and are said to be kept as pets by sorcerers, appearing like spirits and disappearing into thin air.
Even rarer than the ‘chui’ -and definitely still living- is the Zanzibar or Aders’ duiker (Cephalophus adersi). This, sadly, is Africa’s most endangered duiker. Habitat destruction and uncontrolled hunting devastated the total population from 5,000 to just 600 animals in the two decades since 1983. Nowadays, the Zanzibar duiker is restricted to just a few unprotected forests along the east coast of Zanzibar. There are just under 300 animals remaining today and conservation is desperately needed to preserve them from extinction.
Other animals have been hunted by humans with less devastating consequences; both the African and Small Indian civet were introduced to the islands because of their musk gland secretions, which were used heavily in traditional perfumery. Green and Hawksbilled turtles were also once used for food and medicine, but are now protected.
Birdwatchers will find many tropical finches on Unguja’s east coast, but none come close to what’s hiding on Pemba; endemic sun birds and the Pemba Scops Owl that once made its home in the abundant clove trees covering the island. Misali island’s forest shelters the rare Fischer`s Turaco (Tauraco fischeri), a breathtaking tropical bird with plumage that looks like tribal war paint. The phenomenal sight of the Mnemba atoll Palaearctic Wading birds also cannot be missed. Native to the arctic tundra, the wading birds migrate to their breeding grounds in the atoll twice a year, with the largest groups seen in late August and early May.
If you’re game for a swim in the dark, Zanzibar’s ocean will shine for you. Illuminated by microscopic animals called dinoflagellates, the water glows so brightly you can sometimes see your own hands moving under the surface. This ocean of light may seem like magic, especially on an island so drawn to it. You can also see dolphins and whales regularly around the Zanzibar archipelago, or you can see the amazing, giant whalesharks if you go to Mafia island.
You might not visit the Zanzibar archipelago for dramatic wildlife but for the patient and interested there are many wild rewards.