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Prison Island: Heaven for the giant tortoises and snorkeling

9 Mar

Changuu Island (Prison Island) is about 30 minutes by boat from Forodhani in Stone Town area lay Changu, also known as Prison Island.

The island was once used by an Arab slave trader to contain the disobedient slaves brought from the African mainland. To prevent their escape before shipping them to the Arabian purchasers, or for auctioning in Zanzibar’s slave market, the slaves were dumped on Changuu, from where they were unlikely to attempt escape.

After the abolition of slavery, in 1873, the island was bought by general Lloyd Mathews, commander of the sultan’s army, who built a house here. In 1893 a prison was built on the island, but it was used instead as a quarantine station for the whole east African region. In the 1920s passengers arriving from India had to spend between one and two weeks on Changuu before proceeding to Zanzibar Town.

You can still see the quarantine station, and the house built by General Mathews which is now used as a restaurant. A path leads right round the island (about an hour’s easy stroll, for residents of the lodge only), also passing some old pits where coral has been dug out to make building stone. Some of these pits fill with water at high tide, and in colonial days they were kept clean and used as swimming pools.

The Giant Tortoises (Geochelone gigantea) are Changuu Islands most famous inhabitants, and are to be found nowhere else in East Africa. Four tortoises were brought from the island of Aldabra in the Seychelles in the 18th century, as a gift from the Seychelles governor to his opposite number in Zanzibar. They started to breed, and by 1955 there were 200, but after independence the numbers began to drop, partly because people started to steal them to sell abroad, either as exotic pets, or as food for ‘exotic restaurants’. The numbers dropped to 100 in 1988, then 50 in 1990, until by late 1996 there were only seven left. In the same year a group of 80 hatchlings were moved to Zanzibar for protection – and 40 of them disappeared. Today the tortoises are protected in a large sanctuary compound provided by the Zanzibar government with help from the World Society for the Protection of Animals. In 2000 there were 17 adults, 50 juveniles and 90 hatchlings, all individually identified and protected by microchips injected under the skin. Since then, many more have been brought in, mostly juveniles.

Giant tortoises face dangers at every stage of their biological growth. Apart from poachers who want them alive, other hunters kill them to use the shells and claws for medicine or saleable souvenirs. Eggs and hatchlings face constant danger from crabs, birds and other predators. Tortoises have been living in the Indian Ocean islands, and probably Aldabra, for over 100 million years but their numbers have fallen to such critically low levels that they are now classified as endangered. The adult tortoises of Prison Island are already producing the next generations.