JOZANI FOREST, ZANZIBAR: HOW WE FOUND OURSELVES IN THE MIDDLE OF A RED COLOBUS MONKEY COLONY
These cuties are one of the world’s most endangered primates, and the majority of those left in the world are living in and around Zanzibar’s Jozani Chwaka-Bay National Park. Of course, we were determined to see these beautiful creatures during our stay on the island, but were unsure of the best way to do it, especially as the reviews of the guided tours from Jozani National Park HQ left us feeling skeptical and unenthusiastic about the experience.
So here’s what we wish we’d known prior to our visit, what we learned, and how we ended up having a magical evening in the forest surrounded by these amazing monkeys.
Hot tip: Our whole experience with the Jozani guide was quite amusing, so I have recounted it here, but if you just want to know how you can see the monkeys WITHOUT a guide, skip straight to the FIFTH thing we learned.
First: A bit of context
The main red colobus monkey colony is in Jozani Chwaka-Bay National Park, and a basic internet search will tell you that this is the place to go if you want to see them. You cannot enter the national park without an unenthusiastic guide, which will cost you around USD12, and grant you an hour-long walk around forest, including the mangrove boardwalk.
You will see countless signs along the road as you approach Jozani, saying ‘do not photograph the monkeys without paying!’ And security patrols the area around the forest trying to catch people in the act. If it’s your first time to the area, the easiest thing seems to be to take a guided tour...
We arrived about 45mins before closing time, knowing we wouldn’t have time to do the full tour, but we were ok with that, we just wanted to see the monkeys, and were happy to pay for the tour in order to support the park.
Second: Everything you read about Jozani Guides is true
Our guide asked us to wait for another small group of people, who were also happy to take a shortened version of the tour.
We spent a few minutes going through the rules of the park (particularly the rule about tipping your guide) and then another 10 minutes listening to our guide tell us that even thought the park closed at 5pm, he could take us for the full walk if we paid him extra (read my thoughts in how tipping is screwing with the African economy here).
‘No thanks,’ we said. ‘We’ll just go and see the monkeys for half an hour.’
We spent another 5 minutes arguing that our guide didn’t need to do any overtime, we would all be happy to finish at 5pm.
Looking disgruntled, he led us into the forest.
Third: Most of the monkeys are OUTSIDE the national park
After walking at a snail’s pace through the forest, (listening to our guide say we might not see any monkeys, as the would probably all come out at 5, but if we gave him money, he could show them to us then) we then LEFT the national park and walked along the road we had just driven along. Then we CROSSED the road into a patch of land OUTSIDE the national park, and after a few minutes, we saw our first monkey.
We saw a few more monkeys as we walked deeper into the patch of forest, but by this time it was 5pm and we knew our guide’s time was almost up, so we thanked him and said ‘shouldn’t we be getting back now?’
Fourth: Guides can get really cranky when they fail at scamming you
Our guide wasn’t happy. He said it was already past 5pm and we had made him work beyond his hours, and he was leading us now to the mangrove boardwalk from where it would take a long time to walk back to the reserve, so we owed him significant overtime… hm. No thanks. The other people in our group looked a little bewildered and decided to stay with the guide, but we said we could walk back to our motorbike from here, and thanked our guide for the tour. We left to the echoes of his abuse for not giving him more money. Charming…
Fifth: You CAN see the monkeys WITHOUT a Jozani guide (abusing you)
We hopped on our motorbike and decided to do some monkey-hunting of our own…
Come out of the Jozani National park and turn right. About 50-100 meters along you will notice a couple of muddied car tyre tracks going off the road to your left. This was where the guide had eventually taken us. Park your motorbike/car here.
As we walked into the small patch of forest, we passed a couple of local kids on a bike, who smiled and said ‘Jambo!’ I asked them if they had seen any monkey’, and they looked thoughtful, then pointed straight ahead, so we wandered through the trees (sticking to the paths) for a while and then suddenly the boys ran up to us excitedly to say they had found some! They led us to a small area where we found ourselves SURROUNDED by a colony of about 20 red Colobus Monkeys (and their babies) and even a few Zanzibar Sykes’ monkeys having a play! It was the most magical experience, and the boys were so happy to share it with us. As we walked back to our bikes we spotted quite a few more monkeys in the trees - this was clearly the best place to see them (at least at this time of day). We felt so lucky to have had this special encounter.
Sixth: You SHOULD pay to see the monkeys
Overall I was more than happy to contribute $12 (or more) to the Jozani National Park. It’s a beautiful piece of land, It’s the only national park in Zanzibar, it’s home to hundreds of native species (many of which are considered to be endangered) and it should be protected.
Unfortunately, by all accounts on the internet, the refusal of the park to pay their guides a decent wage so they aren’t reliant on harassing visitors for money (or their refusal to hire guides that are passionate about the park, rather than their pockets) means people are becoming reluctant to visit, or leaving with a negative impression.
My advice would be to donate your $12 (at least) to the conservation efforts of the National park, and explore the natural beauty of the area yourself - so long as you take care not to get too close to the monkeys, NEVER try to touch or feed them, and keep the area as quiet and clean as you found it.
Obviously it helps if you come across some adorable pint-sized guides, but even if you don’t, this is a beautiful part of Zanzibar to explore and you are guaranteed to see a few monkeys.