Chumbe Island, Tanzania
This beautiful private island is a pristine sparkling jewel that lies twelve kilometres off the Zanzibar Coast. It is a marine and forest reserve housing seven rustically elegant eco bungalows; reflecting the natural environment. A majestic lighthouse built in 1904 by the Sultan of Zanzibar, that surveys the landscape, is the only sign that this was not always an environmentally sound sanctuary.
For those travellers who are truly committed to ecotourism and are searching for a sustainable paradise island retreat then Chumbe is probably it. The reef houses 260 types of coral and 400 species of fish, meaning that 90% of the species found in the region alone can be found on this reef. Another distinctive feature is the accessibility of the reef. It lies between 1-3 metres and is therefore can be clearly observed by snorkelling. Scuba diving is not permitted unless it is for research activities in order to limit damage to the coral.
However it is really not necessary to dive on this spectacular reef. It is one of the most bio-diverse and species rich reefs that is a pleasure to explore. Turtles, a huge array of fish, such as Parrotfish, Moorish Idols, Triggerfish, Clownfish and more meander around you. The scenes of all these beautiful species create a rainbow of activity. There are innumerable species of coral, a lot of which I have never seen alive. The allure of the island’s reef is that it can be viewed by anyone young or old, regardless of physical ability to enjoy one of the most immaculate reefs in existence.
The protected area is run and managed by the Chumbe Island Coral Park Ltd (CHICOP). The reef was the first gazetted marine park in Tanzania. Chumbe Island opened in 1993. The island’s reef is actually located upstream of some of the most vital reserves for fishermen in the area and especially those from Stone Town, Zanzibar. Therefore the protection of this area is not only vital to protect this outstanding reef but also the dispersal of fish from the reef at Chumbe helps to replenish fishing stocks in these areas, making it a vital resource for the local fishing economy. In 1994 it became Chumbe Marine Park and today is recognised as a UN protected area.
Apart from the reef 90% of Chumbe is also covered by the last untouched coral rag forest in Zanzibar. It was declared a reserve at the same time as the reef and it is managed by CHICOP. Baseline surveys in the 1990’s discovered a massive array of species including Uvariodendron kirkii, which was thought to be extinct and was identified by samples from Kew Gardens. This unique environment as it has adapted to survive with hardly any groundwater and either trap water from air humidity or store rainwater. Guides will lead you through the amazing coral rag forest and describe all the natural herbs and identify plants as well as giving you basic ecology lessons.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the island is that the bedrock is made up of fossilised coral. Jaku, our guide pointed out remnants of giant clams and fossils from the Jurassic period. On top of this ancient landscape the roots and vines of lianas and epiphytes snake over the landscape creating a feeling of some long forgotten mythical island. Another inhabitant of the island that gives it a prehistoric and mythical feel is the Coconut Crab (Birgus latro) or the Rare Robber, which is the largest land crab on earth.
They are the most bizarre looking creatures due to their enormous size. Chumbe Island is a vital haven for them as their numbers are threatened throughout the region due to being eaten and used in fish traps. There are very few left on mainland Zanzibar. It is a truly unique animal that can scale up a coconut tree and break the coconuts with its huge claws. They only come out after dark so it is best to spot the after dinner.
Another species that has found sanctuary on Chumbe and is accepted to be extinct on the East African mainland is the Ader’s Duiker. A small population survived on Unguja or Zanzibar Island. In 1995 CHICOP started work with the Department of Forestry to establish a sanctuary. In 1997 a duiker was relocated to Chumbe Island as a test. In 2000 five more were then introduced. It is hoped that this initiative will slow the extinction of this small deer and has been supported by a vast array of organisations around the world.
Ecology lessons are not just for the guests however, the Chumbe Island Team also works extremely closely with local schools in Zanzibar. Children in the region rarely get to go on excursions and the syllabuses do not cover local reef and forest ecology sufficiently. In 2001 CHICOP produced a module on ‘The Coral Reef’ for secondary school children, such as Chukwani School from Zanzibar, and has increased its scope of schools since 2004. This participation includes trips to the coral reef and the rag forest as well as teacher training on the island. There have also been more modules added such as ‘Ecotourism’ and ‘Biodiversity’. CHICOP have been instrumental in changing the environmental teaching in schools on Zanzibar and attitudes. Chumbe Island is a vital education resource as well as conservation programme.
The main pleasure of Chumbe is the privacy and how relaxed the atmosphere is. The eco-bungalows are beautifully designed and as there are only seven it adds to the desert island secluded feeling. The open plan living areas downstairs overlooks the most amazing azure water that you can just lay back in a hammock and soak up the tranquillity. This is the epitome of Robinson Crusoe chic. The ethos combined with the sense of a pristine environment means that Chumbe comes a little closer to this utopia than some other locations. Lazy days are plunged into nights with spectacular sunsets and fabulous home cooked dinners. Sleeping to the sound of the sea without the sounds of modern life or walls, with the breeze slipping over you, is one of the most seductively sonorous experiences in the world.
The bungalows have been meticulously constructed around eco principals. As there is not a natural source of groundwater, the roofs of the bungalows are specifically designed to capture rainwater, which is then stored in a tank under the sitting room and should be enough for six months. There are a number of other environmental measures that have been taken. These include compost toilets in the rooms, use of organic soaps produced locally on Zanzibar and the avoidance and removal of all non-organic matter such as plastic. Photovoltaic panels on the roof provide energy and grey water is safely disposed on in the reef utilizing the phosphates and nitrates.
This is all aimed at keeping this pristine environment intact for generations to come. It also serves to make Chumbe Island a paragon of the ecotourism industry. This is one of the most beautiful islands in the world with a truly inspiring attitude towards conservation and education in the community.
For more information visit www.chumbeisland.com
Photos by Chumbe Island
Words by Electra Gillies