ZANZIBAR, Tanzania – A group of rare Zanzibar red colobus monkeys crashed recklessly through the trees, squealing as they pulled at each others' tails and raced across tree limbs that swayed precariously under their weight in the tropical island's only national park.
Nearby, a pair of the endangered primates — which are found only in Zanzibar — groomed each other as another stretched lazily on a tree branch, its feet dangling down so low that they almost touched my head as I walked on a narrow path in the tropical Jozani Forest.
It was my first encounter with the flagship species of Zanzibar wildlife conservation, named "Procolobus kirkii" after Sir John Kirk, the British explorer and naturalist who first brought it to the attention of zoologists. The leaf-eating primates with a dark red to black coat, a paler underside and distinctive pink lips and nose are popular among tourists flocking to this exotic island.
The inquisitive monkeys with wayward hair complement the experience of this Indian Ocean archipelago, which is better known for its exhilarating scuba diving and spectacular snorkeling; the narrow, winding, cobbled alleyways characterizing its ancient capital of Stone Town; as well as an exotic history that includes being the site of the shortest war on record.
There are no firm estimates on the number of red colobus monkeys surviving in the wild. Various accounts indicate that hunting, deforestation and poisoning by farmers looking to protect their crops has cut down their numbers to between 1,500 and 3,000 in three forests.
During my visit to their lush forest in central Zanzibar, I could see that the species is a remarkably social animal. They live in groups of 30 to 50 individuals who play and groom while resting between meals. Males are said to maintain close bonds that enable them to act together to defend their group.
But the monkeys I saw were clearly used to human contact, practically ignoring curious American, European and African tourists who were going "Ooh!" and "Aah!" in awe as they got so close to the animals that they might have as well have been their long-lost cousins.
Despite their charm, the monkeys are not Zanzibar's main attraction.
I visited their forest home during my stay at the Kiwengwa Strand Hotel, a seaside resort on Zanzibar's eastern coast that boasts brilliant white beaches and powdery soft sands fringed by tall coconut palms and lush vegetation.
That natural beauty, and Zanzibar's strategic position just off continental Africa, has attracted adventurers, explorers, conquerors and fortune-seekers for centuries, transforming the tiny archipelago into a melting pot of African, Indian and Arabian cultures and influences.
At one time, Zanzibar became one of the wealthiest nations in Africa after it grew into a major exporter of cloves and other spices cultivated on its soil, ivory plundered from east and central Africa as well slaves from the region.
A struggle for control of Zanzibar helped spark the shortest war in history, when British forces attacked those loyal to self-proclaimed Sultan Khalid bin Barghash on Aug. 27, 1896. The battle ended about 38 minutes later when Barghash fled the palace to end a two-day reign that began after his cousin and predecessor died suddenly.
These days, adventurers and explorers still flock to Zanzibar in the form of tourists seeking to rest weary bodies after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest peak in northern Tanzania.
The island is also popular among tourists seeking seaside recuperation after days of exhausting early morning game drives, nature walks and other wildlife adventures in Tanzania, a country with the largest concentration of stunning wildlife attractions in Africa including Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, Gombe Stream National Park and Selous Game Reserve.
One of the best ways to get a taste of Zanzibar is to visit Forodhani Gardens in the evening, when dozens of vendors serve an array of delicacies including grilled lobster, octopus, fish, meat, chapati, samosas, french fries, fresh sugar cane and coconut juices and much more to local residents and tourists gathering there at sunset. The light from small lanterns enhances the ambiance.
Still, Zanzibar's charm is not limited to the main island of Unguja.
About 50 miles separates it from the verdant and hilly island of Pemba that is often described as one of the best scuba diving destinations in the world.
Pemba's mangrove-lined coast is broken by hidden, pristine coves and pristine bays. But limited infrastructure keeps most tourists from the volcanic island, effectively letting only the most adventurous enjoy its hard and soft coral gardens with bountiful schools of coral fish, pelagic marine life, mantas and turtles.
If You Go...
ZANZIBAR: Zanzibar Commission for Tourism: http://www.zanzibartourism.net/
WEATHER: Zanzibar lies close to the equator and does not have dramatic variations in climate, making it possible for tourists visit during all seasons. Visitors try to avoid the two rainy seasons including the long rains that produce heavy downpours from mid-March to the end of May and the less-severe short rains that come intermittently from November to January.
GETTING THERE: Daily flights from Amsterdam (Air France-KLM), London (British Airways), Dubai (Emirates Airlines) and Doha (Qatar Airways) to Tanzania's commercial capital in Dar es Salaam. From there, daily scheduled flights, private chartered flights or boat rides go to Zanzibar's main island of Unguja. Daily flights also from Unguja to the sister island of Pemba.
JOZANI FOREST: http://bit.ly/fOnSwH
KIWENGWA STRAND HOTEL: http://bit.ly/fJxzxp Rooms can also be booked through online hotel websites like Expedia for rates under $250 a night for two.