Zanzibar - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section of Zanzibar: the Bradt Travel Guide

The monsoons that blow across the Indian Ocean have allowed contact between Persia, Arabia, India and the coast of east Africa (including the islands of Zanzibar) for over 2,000 years.

The first European arrivals were Portuguese ‘navigators’ looking for a trade route to India. They reached Zanzibar at the end of the 15th century and established a trading station here and at other points on the east African coast. 

At the end of the 17th century the Portuguese were ousted by the Omani Arabs. During this period, Zanzibar became a major slaving centre. In 1840, the Omani sultan Said moved his court from Muscat to Zanzibar, and the island became an Arab state and an important centre of trade and politics in the region. Many European explorers, including Livingstone and Stanley, began their expeditions into the interior of Africa from Zanzibar during the second half of the 19th century. 

Zanzibar was a British protectorate from 1890 until 1963, when the state gained independence. In 1964, the sultan and the government were overthrown in a revolution. In the same year, Zanzibar and the newly independent country of Tanganyika combined to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section of Zanzibar: the Bradt Travel Guide

Dry seaweed zanzibar tanzania sale stone town by akturer shutterstock Dry seaweed for sale in Stone Town © akturer, Shutterstock


The islands of Pemba and Zanzibar were originally forested, but human habitation has resulted in widespread clearing, although a few isolated pockets of indigenous forest remain. Formed about 27 million years ago and seven million years ago respectively, both islands were originally coral reefs which became exposed as sea levels dropped.

On the eastern side of Zanzibar Island, and in parts of the northern and southern areas, the landscape is very flat where coralline rock is exposed. The western and central parts of the island are slightly more undulating, with a deeper soil cover: red, iron-rich and more fertile. Additionally, the western sides receive more rain than the eastern sides of the islands. Thus the western parts of Zanzibar Island were once covered in forest but today very little of Zanzibar’s indigenous natural forest remains, as it has mostly been cleared and used for agriculture. Local people grow crops on a subsistence basis, and this area is also where most of Zanzibar Island’s commercial farms and spice and fruit plantations have been established.


As described above, much of Zanzibar’s indigenous forested area has been cleared, so natural habitats for all wild animals are severely restricted. Probably the best places to see indigenous mammals are the Jozani Forest Reserve on Zanzibar Island and the Ngezi Forest Reserve on Pemba.

The Jozani Forest Reserve is well known for its population of red colobus monkeys. This animal is found elsewhere in Africa, but those on Zanzibar form a distinct species, called Zanzibar red colobus or Kirk’s red colobus (Procolobus kirkii), endemic to the island and one of the rarest primates in Africa. In Jozani and some other patches of forest, you are likely to see the blue monkey, also called Sykes’ monkey, or the Zanzibar white-throated guenon (Cercopithecus mitis albogularis), which on Zanzibar is bluish-grey, with a distinct white throat-patch. Although the two types of monkey compete for some food items, they are often seen foraging peacefully in mixed groups. The blue monkey is called kima mweusi, and the red colobus kima punju – ‘poison monkey’ (probably because the colobus has a stronger smell than other monkeys, and is reputed to have an evil influence on trees where it feeds).

The small-eared greater galago or bushbaby (Otolemur garnettii) and the Zanzibar lesser galago (Galagoides zanzibaricus) both occur on Zanzibar, the latter listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. The small-eared galago is about the size of a rabbit, generally brown, with very distinctive large ears and eyes, and a large bushy tail. The Zanzibar galago (komba ndogo) also has large eyes and ears, but it is smaller and grey in colour. Both animals are nocturnal and have distinctive cries – sometimes like a child crying (hence their name), other times loud and shrill, and positively spine-chilling. They are known to be inquisitive and will forage around huts and villages at night. They are attracted to bowls of locally brewed palm wine, and often get captured when intoxicated and incapable of escape. A local saying, mlevi kama komba, means ‘as drunk as a bushbaby’!

Reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates

Of all of the reptiles on Zanzibar, undoubtedly the easiest to spot is the giant tortoise (Geochelone gigantea) that inhabit Prison Island, a few kilometres offshore from Zanzibar Town.

giant tortoise in the forest Zanzibar Tanzania by MattiaATH, ShutterstockAn Aldabra giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) moving in the forest © MattiaATH, Shutterstock

If you visit Jozani, you’ll probably see some of the forest’s population of tiny black and gold frogs. Chameleons can also be seen in Jozani and other parts of the island. They are often seen crossing roads, but often very slowly, and very precariously.


Zanzibar is not noted as a major birdwatching area, but over 200 species of bird have been recorded on the islands of the archipelago. For any keen birdwatcher travelling on the east African mainland, polishing off the holiday with at least a few days in Zanzibar can make the trip-list even more impressive – the islands boast several species and races which are unique.

People and culture



Having remained fairly steady for some years, the general feeling of Zanzibari residents that recent years had seen a more significant increase was borne out in the most recent census. At the current rate, the population of Zanzibar is set to double in the next 24 years, with a frightening lack of infrastructure, resources or community development to adequately support this. Of the total residents, around two-thirds of the people live on Zanzibar Island (Unguja), with the greatest proportion settled in the densely populated west. Zanzibar’s largest settlement is Zanzibar Town, on Zanzibar Island. Currently 46% of the population live in these urban areas, but outside these towns, most people live in small, traditional villages and are engaged in farming, fishing or tourism-related industries.

There is considerable disparity in the standard of living between the inhabitants of Mafia, Pemba and Zanzibar and between urban and rural populations, which are split roughly equally. The average annual income of just US$250 hides the fact that about half the population lives below the poverty line on less than US$1 per day. 


The indigenous language spoken throughout Zanzibar is Swahili (called Kiswahili locally). This language is also spoken as a first language by Swahili people along the east African coast, particularly in Kenya and mainland Tanzania, and as a second or third language by many other people throughout east Africa (including Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and in parts of several other countries such as Rwanda, Mozambique and Congo), making Swahili the common tongue of the region. 


Most of the people in Zanzibar are Muslims and all towns and villages on Zanzibar Island and Pemba have mosques. Visitors to Zanzibar Town cannot fail to hear the evocative sound of the muezzins calling people to prayer from the minarets, especially for the evening session at sunset. And visitors cannot fail to notice the effects of the holy month of Ramadan, when most people fast during the day, and the pace of life slows down considerably. There are also small populations of Christians and Hindus. Alongside the established world faiths, traditional African beliefs are still held by most local people, and there is often considerable crossover between aspects of Islam and local custom.  


traditional feast zanzibar festival fisherman tanzania women dancingWomen at a traditional festival in honour of fishermen © africa924, Shutterstock

Music and dance

As you wander around Zanzibar Town, you will hear calls to prayer from the many mosques as well as the sounds of American rap music and Jamaican reggae. Around the next corner, however, you are also likely to hear film music from India or the latest chart-toppers from Egypt and the Gulf States. Thankfully the islands have not entirely lost their own cultural traditions, and equally popular in Zanzibar are local musical forms, in particular the style known as taarab.

The best way to experience taarab is at a local concert, but visitors to Zanzibar are also welcome at the orchestras’ rehearsals in Malindi or at Vuga Clubhouse in the evening.

Ngoma, meaning ‘drum’, is a term used to encompass all local African traditional forms of dancing, drumming and singing. There are literally hundreds of different ngoma styles throughout Tanzania, variations often being so slight that untrained eyes and ears can hardly notice the difference. A number of these originate from Zanzibar and Pemba and all are spectacular to watch. The often-elaborate native costumes emphasise the unity of the dancers’ steps and the rhythm section, which usually consists of several handmade drums and percussion instruments.

Visual arts

By far the best-known contemporary Zanzibari style is Tingatinga. Paintings in this distinctive style can be found for sale at souvenir stalls and shops all over Zanzibar, as well as at tourist centres on the Tanzanian mainland and in Kenya. The subjects of Tingatinga paintings are usually African animals, especially elephants, leopards, hippos, crocodiles and gazelles, as well as guineafowl, hornbills and other birds. The main characteristics of the style include images which are both simplified and fantastical, bold colours, solid outlines and the frequent use of dots and small circles in the design. 

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