Pemba’s Unique Species

Due to Pemba’s isolation from the African Continent for several million years, it is home to a number of plants and animals which are found nowhere else in the world. The Kwanini Foundation have put together a short summary of the species, read on to find out more about Pemba’s enigmatic endemics!

Pemba Island offers a unique terrestrial environment as unlike Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar Archipelago, it has been isolated from the African continent for several millions of years and is therefore classified as a true oceanic island. This isolation means that Pemba supports a range of plants and animals which are found nowhere else in the world. Pemba in Arabic is al-Jazīra al-khadrā, which translated into English means the Green Island, and was so named as it was once almost entirely covered in forest. Today only a few pockets of natural forest remain, and the two largest remnants are protected as forest reserves; Msitu Mkuu in the north-east and Ngezi forest in the north-west.

One of Pemba’s more well-known residents is the Pemba Flying Fox (Pteropus voeltzkowi); the only true endemic mammal species found on the island. It’s large size, wingspan of over one meter and reddish colouration make it distinctive from the 13 other bat species found on Pemba. The species is seen as a vital pollinator and seed disperser as they are bigger than all the fruit eating birds and it is the largest bat species on the island. Unfortunately, the flying fox is considered a traditional delicacy in Pemba, and hunting of the species for food, combined with habitat loss, led to it being listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List in 1996. Conservation efforts have been put in place to prevent further population decline. This includes outreach schemes which have been undertaken in communities close to roosts to raise awareness of the importance of conserving this unique species of bat. The Ngezi-Vumawimbi Nature Forest Reserve is an important habitat for the flying fox and the ongoing conservation efforts have significantly reduced the declining numbers, with the species now listed as Vulnerable by IUCN.

Pemba is home to another species of bat found nowhere else, which was discovered on the island in 2008. Mops bakarii is a species of mastiff bat, named after our very own Director of Community Development, Dr Bakari Asseid, in honour of his significant contributions to the conservation of Pemba and Unguja’s natural habitats and wildlife.
Pemba shares three other species of mammal with Unguja; the Pemba Blue Duiker (Philantomba manticola sundevalli), the Zanzibar Red Colobus (Pilolcolobus kirkii) and the East African Tree Hyrax (Dendrohyrax validus neumanni). These species are considered rare on Pemba and it is likely their populations are confined to the remaining areas of natural forest.

The birdlife of Pemba is unique and the whole island is designated as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International. This is due to the populations of globally threatened and range restricted species of bird which includes the Pemba Scops-owl (Otus pembaensis), the Pemba Green-pigeon (Treron pembaensis) and the Pemba Sunbird (Cinnyris pembae) and the Pemba White-eye (Zosterops vaughani) shown below. The sunbird is a daily visitor to any flowering plant around our offices and like all sunbirds the male has a magnificent, iridescent plumage whilst the female is a dull, olive brown colouring.

The reptiles are a lesser known group of endemics and include four species of snake; the Pemba Worm Snake (Leptotyphlops pembae), the Pemba Wolf Snake (Lycophidion pembanum), the Pemba Gracile Blind Snake (Letheobia pembana) and the Pemba Marsh Snake (Natriciteres pembana), one species of skink, the Pemba Speckle-lipped Skink (Trachylepis albotaeniata) and one lizard, the Pemba Day Gecko (Phelsuma parkeri).
Although the reptiles of Pemba are poorly understood and their range limited, it is thought that they are better able to adapt to land use change than some other species and are known to inhabit agricultural and urban areas. We frequently encounter the Pemba Day Gecko having a sunbathe or the tiny Pemba Worm Snake amongst disturbed earth.

The majority of Pemba’s natural forest vegetation has been cleared and converted into open farmland to grow crops. Some species, such as the reptiles and the Pemba White-eye have been able to adapt to the changes in habitat and their populations appear to be stable. Others, such as the Scops-owl and the flying fox, have suffered as a result of the severe habitat fragmentation and loss of native forest. Their populations are now confined to the few, small pockets of natural forest which remain.

Here at the Kwanini Foundation we want to ensure these magnificent fauna and flora are here to stay on Pemba and in the future we hope to set-up conservation projects which will establish the current population status of Pemba’s endemics and implement the necessary measures to protect and reverse the declining numbers.

If you are interested in hearing more about our projects or making a donation to the Kwanini Foundation please send us an email at for more information or donate online via the link at the bottom of this article.

Sources of information
BirdLife International (2019) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Pemba Island. Downloaded from on 17/05/2019.
Butynski, T.M. and de Jong, Y.A. (2011). Zanzibar red colobus on Pemba Island, Tanzania: population status 38 years post-introduction. In Book: Soorae, P. S. (ed.) (2011). Global Re-introduction Perspectives: 2011. More case studies from around the globe. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN/SSC Re-introduction Specialist Group and Abu Dhabi, UAE: Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi. xiv + 250 pp.
Eastern Arc Mountains & Coastal Forests CEPF Plant Assessment Project Participants 2009. Aloe pembana. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2009: .T158037A5183949. Downloaded on 17 May 2019.
Entwistle, A. (2001). Community-based protection successful for the Pemba flying fox. Oryx 35(4): 353-358.
Entwistle, A. and Corp, N. (1997). Status and distribution of the Pemba flying fox Pteropus voeltzkowi. Oryx 31: 135-142.
Entwistle, A.C. & Juma, J. 2016. Pteropus voeltzkowi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T18768A22089205. Downloaded on 17 May 2019.
Hawlitschek, O., Glaw, F. and Rödder, D. (no date). Herpetological Treasure Trove in the Indian Ocean. Reptilia 97-109.
IUCN. (2012). IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria: Version 3.1. Second edition. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN. iv + 32pp.
Meng, H. et al. (2016). Tanzania’s reptile biodiversity: Distribution, threats and climate change vulnerability. Biological Conservation 204: 72-82.
Spawls, S., Howell, K., Hinkel, H. and Menegon, M. (2018). Field Guide to East African Reptiles. 2nd Edition. Bloomsbury, London.
Stanley, W.T. (2008). A new species of Mops (Molossidae) from Pemba Island, Tanzania. Acta Chiropterologica 10(2): 183-192. Stevenson, T. and Fanshawe, J. (2002). Birds of East Africa. Helm Field Guides.