A visit to Prison Island – called after a prison that was never used as a prison – is listed as a top attraction in every guidebook (entry fee $4) under the heading of Zanzibar. I left feeling sorry for the prisoners on show today. Fishing boats line the harbour waiting to take the tide of tourists out to Changuu Island, aka Prison Island, Quarantine Island, and Kibandiko Island. Fares average about $15 each for the ~11km round-trip. We were fortunate to get the guy to detour to Chapwani Island – Grave Island – on the way back, so it was more than worth it.
Majid bin Said, the first sultan of Zanzibar, gave the island to a couple of Arabs who used it to house rebellious slaves before they were sold at the market in Stone Town or shipped abroad. The ring bolted to the floor in what is now the bar certainly evidences the use of chains.
Back in the late nineteenth century, Llyod Matthews, first British Prime Minister of Zanzibar, bought the island from the Arabs and built a prison for prisoners who never came. At the time, Stone Town was the major port in East Africa and sailors from different parts of the world brought more than their paycheques to the island – they brought disease. The prison was converted into a hospital in 1923 and it was to here that quarantine cases were taken from visiting ships, the main threat being Yellow Fever. Today, you can’t get into Zanzibar from the African mainland without showing your vaccination certificate for Yellow Fever. Even those over 60 who are exempted from the vaccination have to show exemption certs.
With ships usually arriving from December to March, the island was largely unused for most of the year. It became a resort for European ex-pats and locals alike, with the numbers of visitors limited back then due to the lack of freshwater. How times have changed.
Today, it’s a government-run full-on tourist destination with the main attraction some giant Aldabra tortoises who mosey amongst the tourists taking the occasion leaf of cabbage from kids and adults alike anxious to get that photo moment of them feeding the giant creatures. If tortoises could look tortured, this is what I’d expect them to look like. Yes, they have space to move around freely. Yes, they get fed – perhaps overfed. But to be pestered relentlessly by the crowds borders on cruelty.
When watching the monkey in Jozani Forest, I wondered why tourists weren’t limited in numbers. I had the same thought here. Other places do it – the hypogeum in Malta allows 10 visitors each hour and you book in advance. Okay, there’s a difference in place and substance but methinks some control is needed. With 90% of the economy dependent on the tourist dollar, Zanzibar should look to conservation rather than exploitation.
The first four Aldabra were a gift from the British Governor of the Seychelles. The former residents of the Aldabra Atoll were shipped to their new home in Zanzibar in 1919. They’re huge: 122 cm (48 in) in length with an average weight of 250 kg (550 lb). And they can live for years. The oldest ever, Adwaita, who lived in Kolkata Zoo, died in 2006 aged 255. And they’re prolific breeders.
These tortoises bred quickly and by 1955 they numbered around 200 animals. However people began to steal the tortoises for sale abroad as pets or for food and their numbers dropped rapidly. By 1988 there were around 100 tortoises, 50 in 1990 and just 7 by 1996. A further 80 hatchlings were taken to the island in 1996 to increase the numbers but 40 of them vanished. The Zanzibar government, with assistance from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (World Animal Protection) built a large compound for the protection of the animals and by 2000 numbers had recovered to 17 adults, 50 juveniles and 90 hatchlings.
I had a hard time believing Mexican biologist José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez who calls them the ‘ninjas of the tortoise world‘ as apparently they’ve been known to rear up on their back legs to get low-hanging leaves.
Today, there are holiday cottages on the island, complete with a tennis court (in this heat?) and swimming pool. The old European Bungalow is now a restaurant named after our man Matthews. Freshwater no longer comes from rainwater but via an undersea pipe from the mainland. And with plenty of water, comes plenty of tourists.
It was a little crowded for my taste and I wouldn’t be in a hurry back. I found the whole tortoise thing a little upsetting. But as we left, I saw the most amazing sight: local women making their way through the shallows to a local boat to get to the mainland. That alone was worth the trip.