A popular tourist attraction for those visiting Zanzibar is a small island inhabited by giant tortoises. The name of the island is Changuu, but it is popularly known as Prison Island. Our journey starts from the bustling shores of Stone Town, where a short boat ride takes us to this fascinating island where history and nature merge. In this article, you will learn many fascinating things about Prison Island hotels, tours, attractions, history, and more. Let's unravel its mysteries together, starting from the island’s numerous names.
Prison, Changuu, or Tortoise Island?
Changuu Island is known by different names. It is rarely referred to by its official name, and you might hear this island being called Turtle Island, Prison Island, Quarantine Island, or Kibandiko. So, when planning your excursion, be aware that you will be visiting not several different islands but rather a small piece of land less than one kilometer in length.
It is often referred to as Turtle Island or Tortoise Island because it is indeed home to Aldabra Giant Tortoises, which reach a length of one meter (3.2 feet) or more. When they fully extend their necks from under the shells and raise them upwards, these impressive creatures can reach the waist of an adult human! Since those giants are the most appealing aspect of the island for tourists, especially children, this unofficial name has become prevalent in the tourism industry.
The island is also referred to as Prison Island because it houses the ruins of a prison built in the late 19th century. Interestingly, the prison complex was never actually used as a prison. Instead, it served as a sanitation station for sailors and passengers suspected of carrying dangerous contagious diseases. Hence, its other name - Quarantine Island.
There is actually an older name for the island - Kibandiko, but we won't delve too deeply into its history. Instead, we'll focus on the historical periods of Changuu that are of interest to its current visitors. Rather than presenting them in chronological order, we'll follow the route that tourists typically follow exploring the island. So, let's begin with the fascinating tortoises.
Zanzibar's Giant Tortoises
When you arrive on the island, you are greeted by warm white sand and clear waters of the Indian Ocean. Green trees sway their branches hospitably over the delicate pink wall encircling the southern tip of the island. You are invited to enter the Turtles Park or the Prison Island Tortoise Sanctuary, and if you haven't seen these large reptiles before, be prepared to be amazed!
Giant tortoises slowly crawl across the land and even along the sidewalks, their lower shells rumbling and claws clicking. They are so large that at first, it's hard to believe they are living creatures. From a distance, they could be mistaken for wooden sculptures. The shells of the largest males can easily accommodate a curled-up 5-year-old child. But please be kind to these creatures and do not let children sit on them. The image of giant tortoises giving rides to friends exists only in old Soviet cartoons.
At the entrance to the park, you will be provided with cabbage that you can use to feed the animals. They are rarely hungry as there are always many visitors, and everyone wants to feed the tortoises. However, if they are not sleeping or engaged in other activities, they will eagerly extend their long snake-like necks and snatch the food from your hands. Be careful while feeding them - tortoises have poor vision right in front of them but at the same time are capable of quickly extending their necks.
How big are the tortoises on Prison Island?
Aldabra Giant Tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea) are the second largest species of land tortoises after Galapagos Giant Tortoises (Chelonoidis niger). The average length of an Aldabra giant tortoise, measured by the shell, ranges from 90 to 122 centimeters (35.4 to 48 inches). Many individuals can reach food growing one meter above the ground. In the wild, they feed on grass and shrub leaves. In the park, they are also fed with fruits. The average weight of an adult tortoise in its natural habitat usually ranges from 150 to 250 kilograms (330 to 551 pounds).
Aldabra giant tortoises are known for their longevity, living an average of 100-170 years. Some have even surpassed this average. For example, a tortoise named Adwaita, who lived in the Alipore Zoological Gardens of Kolkata, India, died in 2006. Various estimates place her age between 150 and 250 years. Unfortunately, it's impossible to verify these calculations as the observers themselves have much shorter lifespans.
Presently, a male Aldabra giant tortoise named Jonathan lives on Saint Helena Island. He is believed to have been born in 1832, making him nearly 200 years old. If this is accurate, then he's not just the oldest land tortoise currently alive, but probably also the oldest land animal on Earth. The exact ages of the tortoises on Prison Island aren't known for certain, but park staff members assure visitors that some of these creatures are over 100 years old.
This species of tortoise is also known by another name among wildlife enthusiasts - Seychelles Giant Tortoise. These names reflect their origin. Aldabra is a group of islands in the Indian Ocean that form part of the Seychelles. That is the natural habitat of a unique population of those enormous animals.
But have the tortoises always lived here?
Seychelles is the only place on the planet where those giant tortoises live in the wild. All other known locations of their existence resulted from human intervention. The Changuu Island of the Zanzibar Archipelago is no exception.
In 1919, four giant tortoises were first brought to Prison Island as a gift from the Governor of the Seychelles. Their population expanded to a few hundred, but at some point, the adult tortoises began to disappear from the island. It's believed that people were taking them to keep as pets or to try their meat. By 1996, only seven tortoises remained on the island.
It was only after the Zanzibar government took measures that the population of giant tortoises was restored, and the animals were put under protection. Since then, a sanctuary has been established on the island where the adult tortoises are cared for, and the young ones are protected from being attacked by birds of prey. Apart from tortoises, you will see peacocks roaming freely here. The young tortoises live in a separate enclosure. So, in a way, Prison Island is still living up to its name.
The prison and quarantine past of the island
Long ago, in the 19th century, Arab slave traders sent rebellious slaves, who were prone to escape attempts in the past, to this island. Escape from here was impossible, and the harsh conditions without drinking water broke their will. After learning about the island's role, the newly formed Since 1890, the Zanzibar Archipelago was effectively administered by Great Britain, which gained control over the Zanzibar and Pemba islands from Germany as a result of signing the Zanzibar Treaty. In the same year, the Commander in Chief of Zanzibar, Lloyd Mathews, succeeded in getting the local sultan to prohibit the slave trade. under the leadership of the First Minister, Lloyd Mathews, bought the island from the Arabs to build a prison for especially dangerous criminals. The buildings were constructed out of coral stone found on the island itself.
In 1894, a prison, two bungalows, a small mosque, and rainwater reservoirs (the only source of fresh water on the island) were built. However, in the previous year, Egypt had experienced a cholera epidemic, and Bombay in India was hit by the bubonic plague. As Zanzibar was a major seaport in East Africa at the time, it was crucial to prevent these deadly diseases from spreading across the Zanzibar Archipelago and beyond. The decision was made to convert the existing buildings into a quarantine camp for sailors and passengers arriving from infected areas. Hence, the prison transformed into a hospital and quarantine station.
Subsequent measures taken by the British to prevent the spread of yellow fever in their territories led to the constant operation of a hospital on Changuu Island. The rooms originally designed for prisoners were used as hospital wards. In 1923, the island was renamed 'Quarantine Island'.
Interestingly, for most of the year, the island was mostly uninhabited since maritime traffic ceased from March to December, eliminating the need for quarantine. As a result, people started visiting the island for leisure. Near the pier, the European Bungalow was built in the late 1890s – a two-story building with a restaurant. The coral extraction pits were converted into swimming pools. Later, some quarantine buildings were refitted into guesthouses.
Tours around the island
Today, a hotel operates in the remote part of the island, and the European Bungalow serves as Mathews' Restaurant. However, they might not always be available, so it's wise to check their current status before your visit.
The island boasts a small beach and a scenic pier perfect for taking beautiful photographs. The part of the shore where tourist boats dock is sandy, while the opposite side has a hard coral floor and is subject to tides, so it can hardly be called a proper beach. Exploring the coast can be quite interesting if you have spare time. In addition, you can also enjoy snorkeling.
The two main locations open for visits on Changuu Island are the Tortoise Sanctuary or Park and the ruins of the prison hospital. In the Tortoise Park, you can watch the slow giants, participate in feeding them, and take photographs of these long-lived animals. If you bring children to the park, please remind them not to sit or attempt to ride on the tortoises. However, you can pet their shells – contrary to popular belief, tortoise shells are sensitive.
A separate path, which passes by Matthews' Restaurant, leads to the prison ruins that were never actually used as a real prison. There are no official tours conducted there unless you've come to the island with a guide hired from Stone Town. The former quarantine hospital doesn't have many rooms, and it would take you about five minutes to walk through all of them. There are benches and tables on the grounds for you to relax in the shade.
A bar operates in the former prison building. During the high season, you can expect to find some food, but if you plan to stay on the island for a while, we recommend bringing your own food and having a snack at the entrance to the prison courtyard. You can relax on the benches, take photos, and watch the peacocks roaming around.
How to get to Prison Island?
Private boats to Prison Island depart from the pier located near the park on the Stone Town promenade - Forodhani Gardens. The sea journey to the island takes about 20 minutes one way. This can certainly be considered an adventure in its own right. As the boat speeds through the azure water, creating white spray on both sides, you'll undoubtedly enjoy that short but wonderful journey.
Before setting off to visit the turtles, you can negotiate the price on the shore. Don't allocate too much time for a visit to Prison Island – a couple of hours should suffice unless you plan to stroll along the shore or have leisurely photo sessions in the prison ruins and the tortoise park. After all, human life is much shorter than that of the Aldabra giant tortoises, so you might want to hurry to other exciting attractions of Zanzibar.