Surrounded by the pristine waters of the Indian Ocean, exquisite white sand beaches, coral reefs and covered in lush tropical vegetation is Prison Island also known as ‘Kibandiko, Changuu or Quarantine Island’ is a small island 5.6 km northwest of Stone Town, Unguja, Zanzibar. It is about a 30-minutes boat ride from Stone Town. The island hosts a former prison and a tortoise sanctuary.
In 1860, the small island was used as a prison for disobedient slaves. By 1893, construction of an actual prison complex was completed, but instead of housing prisoners, it was used to quarantine yellow fever cases. Nowadays, the island is home to some endangered Aldabra giant tortoises, given to the island in 1919 by the British governor of the Seychelles. Some of those original tortoises are supposedly still alive here to this day.
Prison Island is part of Zanzibar’s intriguing history. A walk across the island leads to the former prison ruins. The island was used as a prison for rebellious slaves in 1860s and also functioned as a coral mine. In 1891 Consul C.S Smith decided to reform prison conditions after visiting the main prison on the island of Zanzibar and being appalled by the squalid conditions.
It was decided that a prison would be constructed on Changuu Island in order to decongest the prison on the main island. As with most government projects, progress was slow and the prison on Prison Island was only completed in the mid-1890s. However, no prisoners were ever moved there so the buildings remained unoccupied to save for the occasional use as a health resort by the European residents in Zanzibar.
Today, Prison Island is especially well-known for its giant tortoises – the island’s biggest attraction. By the mid-1950s, the number had increased to more than 200 giant tortoises on the island.
Unfortunately, there was a sharp decline in the tortoise population as the tortoises were sold for food and as pets. Following measures to protect the tortoises, the number is back up to more than 100 again. The oldest of the island’s tortoises is 192 years old, and several of the others are up to 150 years old.
The Aldabra tortoise, which lives on the island, is the world’s second-largest tortoise, surpassed only by the Galapagos tortoise. Aldabra tortoises are not indigenous to Zanzibar, originally from the islands of the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles, they were a gift in 1919 from the British governor of Seychelles to the first British resident of Zanzibar, Major F.B. Pearce. In exchange for the tortoises, a number of specimens of typical flowering plants were shipped to The Seychelles.
The Aldabra tortoise can weigh up to 250 kilos and grow to a length of 1.22 metres. Its food consists mainly of vegetation, and they sometimes topple small trees to grab the leaves. A new litter of tortoises hatches every year. The tortoises hatch from February to May. Although an Aldabra tortoise can weigh up to a quarter of a tonne, the newly hatched young are only around 8 centimetres long. The baby tortoises are kept in cages for a few months to protect them.
You can also explore Prison island on your own, which only takes about an hour. Besides the giant tortoises, you may see the colourful peacocks, bats and the beautiful butterflies that live on the island. If you’d rather relax, you also have every opportunity to do so. As in Zanzibar, Prison Island has some beautiful white sandy beaches with turquoise-blue waters, where you can swim, sunbathe and snorkel.
The water around the island is crystal-clear and cerulean blue, which makes snorkeling among the colourful fish and coral here hard to resist, but a visit also lets you gain an understanding of a grim period of Zanzibar history.