Don't touch the Coral, please By Janet T Sawyer

Zanzibar,  Courtesy of Tanzania Tourist High Commission

As a shell collector I have a dream; I have a dream that I am walking along a sandy beach, with the warm sun shining above, an azure sea lapping peacefully beside me, a soft breeze sighing through the supple palms and a distant fishing boat with its sails at rest being hauled joyfully to the shore. I have a dream in which I step on to that beach and see nestled in golden sand, a huge specimen sea shell. I reach out my hand to pick it up, and the shell vanishes; I am lying in bed at home. Well, I dreamt that dream during my holiday in Zanzibar, and although I have long since journeyed home, I still have not yet woken up!

Fisherman's Resort, my hotel in Zanzibar, was beautifully situated among palm trees on a coral-fringed bay with the biggest swimming pool on the island. I had arrived at the hotel amid a tropical thunderstorm which continued for two days and it was not until late on the second afternoon that I stepped on to the beach beside the hotel. At once two security guards appeared and I assumed they were going to stop me from shell-collecting. Not at all, they were merely anxious that I should not go beyond the hotel's boundary signs which marked the limits of their jurisdiction. In fact the local inhabitants regarded shell-collecting outside the protected area as competing for living mollusca as a food source and as a supplement to their incomes.

Chicoreus ramosus, L 1758

I walked along to a fishing boat drawn up on the sand, thinking that the crew might have thrown out some shells which had become entangled in their nets or lobster pots. This thought paid off because I immediately found a good specimen of Chicoreus ramosus (L.1758). Another good find was a specimen of Strombus decorus masirensis (Moolenbeek and Decker 1993). I subsequently identified this specimen using the book "Sea Shells of Eastern Arabia" published by Motivate and edited by BSCC elder statesman Peter Dance. I found this work extremely relevant to Zanzibar for a curious historical reason. Apart from dug-out canoes, paddled across the strait from the nearby mainland, the first ships to reach Zanzibar Island were Persians sailing from Shiraz as early as the 10th Century whom the winds and currents brought to these shores. In later centuries Arab traders came from all parts of the Middle East and during the 18th and 19th Centuries, Zanzibar was actually united with the Sultanate of Oman. If the early boatmen reached the shores of Zanzibar by setting out from the Arabian Peninsula with their imperfect methods of seamanship and navigation, might one not suppose that several specimens of mollusc had managed to accomplish the same journey?

The island of Zanzibar is 50 miles long from north to south and 24 miles wide. Its population is half a million, with a further 300,000 living in the neighbouring island of Pemba. The two islands together form the state of Zanzibar which since the revolution of 1964 has been joined together with Tanganyika to create the federation of Tanzania. Although Zanzibar has its own legislature,links with mainland Tanzania and its capital Dar-Es-Salaam are strong. Kiswahili is the national language throughout, although Arabic and English are both spoken in Zanzibar. In the early part of this century the Sultan sought British assistance against German influence from Tanganyika and Zanzibar became a British Protectorate until 1963 when it was granted independence.

Dhows Door

Zanzibar has a long history of involvement in the slave trade. The explorers Livingstone, Stanley, Burton and Speke, who all went to Zanzibar to recruit porters for their expeditions to the African Continent, had many a conflict with Arab slave traders in their journeys through Central Africa. In fact David Livingstone campaigned from Zanzibar itself for the slave trade to end and he is much revered there for having succeeded. The beastly business eventually came to an end in 1873, some 65 years after it had been outlawed in the UK. In the capital of Zanzibar, Stone Town, there are two houses where David Livingstone stayed, and in the Cathedral which was constructed on the site of the old slave market, there is a cross made from the tree beneath which Livingstone died. Stone Town also offers to the discerning tourist 3 palaces, 3 museums, the underground slave cells, a yard where dhows are under construction and a lively market selling fish, meat, vegetables, spices and fruit, as well as characteristic narrow alleyways and richly-carved doors. Three quarters of the world's cloves come from Zanzibar, although most are grown in Pemba. However, there are shady avenues of mango and fig trees, plantations of cassava and maize, stands of mahogany and palm wood used for making furniture and stretches of mangrove scrub used in the building of boats, making this an island of welcome greenery .

Zanzibar has its own endemic species of leopard and wild cats, as well as the unique Red Colobus Monkey which can be seen at close quarters in the Josani Forest Reserve. The tours scheduled by my tour agency provided me with a "City Tour" of Stone Town and a day trip to the Josani Forest coupled with a "Spices Tour" of several agricultural plantations. However it would not touch the coast at all. I had already contacted the local tourist agency at my hotel run by a splendid African lady called Flora, whilst the thunderstorm was still raging. Flora arranged for me to take a day trip to the northernmost point of the island at Nungwi.

A minibus duly arrived at my hotel at 9.00 a.m. and as I was the only person travelling I had the driver and the guide, a mature and very respectable Moslem called Salim, at my complete disposal. First we drove north through the suburbs of Zanzibar Town, past the large fairground where families take their children at weekends, and past several schools with their uniformed pupils, the girls wearing white Islamic headscarves. In Tanzania education is state-subsidised, although the parents have to contribute a certain amount. Classes double up with morning and afternoon sessions for different sets of pupils as they are so short of buildings and equipment. Then we drove along shady avenues of mango trees with small-holdings on either side and small houses made either of mud bricks with palm thatch or of the more modern grey concrete bricks with a tin roof. The plantations grew bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, jackfruit, durian, pineapple, papaya, roseapple, lychees, ginger, cinnamon, peppers, cloves, vanilla and many other exotic tropical products. I now know what a nutmeg looks like when it's growing, the scarlet nut being hidden inside a pithy peach-like fruit.

Suddenly the road leaves behind the well-watered forest and emerges on to the drier northern end of the island where the only crops which the thin soil atop the infertile coral rock base can bear are small fields of cassava and a scattering of fig and baobab trees. We reached the large village of Nungwi after wending our way between the potholes of a dirt road for the last 20 kilometres. Nungwi is a village completely lacking in streets. Vehicles simply drive around the individual houses. This leads to some hilarious encounters with domestic livestock and surprised villagers, especially when our driver lost his way.


I was taken to inspect a number of beach locations till I communicated as tactfully as possible that I did not wish to swim but rather to look for shells. Salim said he knew just the place and indeed when we arrived there were fishing boats drawn up on the sand which was marked by several hopeful-looking strand lines. I jumped out of the vehicle, plastic collecting bag at the ready, and there at my feet was a huge pile of shells -Conus betulinus L. 1758 for the most part, with some Lambis, Chicoreus ramosus, Conus virgo and the occasional Cypraea. Knowing that Conus betulinus was used as live bait by the fisherman in their lobster pots, I assumed that this pile had been thrown aside after the animal inside had been consumed by the trapped lobster, so I started to pick up a few specimens.

 Malea Pomum

"Hey!" said a voice behind me in Swahili "that's my stock you're taking!" He was the local shell dealer. Salim showed him the contents of my bag and asked him how much he would charge. "one thousand shillings," he replied. I quickly handed over the Tanzanian equivalent of £1 sterling and promised the dealer as much business again on my return. Although one is not supposed to encourage the trade in shells, I was pretty sure this was purely local material supplied by the incoming fisherman. In fact the dealer wanted only 300 shillings for each ""clean specimen"" and could not understand why I should be interested in the ""dirty"" ones from the beach. I selected two cones and a Cypraea which would be easy to carry and asked for a Malea pomum L.1758 as a make-weight. I duly handed over another 1,000 shilling note and turned away, only to have the dealer run after me and pop a perfect Harpa harpa L.1758 into my bag. I found the people of Zanzibar generous and courteous to a fault, often apologising for errors of politeness which we have forgotten to observe in our modern selfishness.

Conus Augur Cypraea Caurica

In the meantime I had been strolling along the beach with my guide Salim. I was the first shell-collector he had met and he was eager to learn the rudiments in order, no doubt, to offer a similar service to other tourists in the future. Whilst I retrieved perfect specimens of Cypraea caurica L. 1758, Conus augur, Lightfoot 1786, Bulla ampulla L. 1758 and Codakia punctata L.1758 from beneath my feet, I gave Salim a few hints on what to look for in the quality of a collectable shell and taught him some of the common names. But how do you explain the meaning of Conus virgo to a very upright Moslem? At the end of the beach there was an aquarium stocked with Hawksbill Turtle, a species threatened with extinction, along with several species of fish, some of which behaved like frenzied piranhas when their keeper threw them the innards from a marlin.

Conus Ebraeus

Then it was back to the minibus, passing a Moslem funeral on our way to the village with the relatives sitting around the heaped-up grave in a forest grove. We drove between even worse potholes to the Ras Nungwi Beach Hotel where I had lunch of delicious king fish (marlin) and afterwards descended to the sands to look for more shells. This end of the beach was even better than the part where the boats were drawn up. I picked up several beautiful specimens of Cypraea helvola L. 1758, Conus ebraeus L. 1758, several species of nerite-and a variety of bivalves, Trachycardium flavum L. 1758 and T. elongatum Bruguiere 1789 being among the most attractive. I also collected a fine specimen of Volema paradisiaca, Roding, 1798. It contained a large hermit crab which I tried every ruse to remove and install in alternative accommodation, but had to give up in the end. I left it on my balcony overnight and in the morning it had vanished.

My scheduled tour of the spice plantations and the visit to the Red Colobus Monkeys in the Josani Forest had now taken place. This time I had several companions including a farmer from Colchester called James who had just completed a sponsored climb of Mount Kilimanjaro at 5895m(19,340 ft) in aid of S.C.O.P.E. A day or two later I received a pre-breakfast telephone call from my tour guide; would I like to go on another trip as James wanted to swim with the dolphins off the southern coast of the island and it would cost only half as much if I would share the trip. I enquired what I should do whilst James was pursuing the dolphins since I do not swim. "Oh, there's a beach nearby and a restaurant where we will have lunch." I agreed to take part, much relieved at having been saved the embarrassment of confessing my trip with the opposition had they suggested a tour to the north coast instead.


The route south provided a mirror image of the route north. My hotel was already situated south of the capital and just past the airport, so we entered immediately the avenues of mango trees and small-holdings, only to emerge once again into a drier area where the road wound among the baobabs and straggling cassava plantations. Soon we were dodging a jigsaw-puzzle of potholes until we reached the sea at a small village called Kizimkazi. Here the local population seemed to have foregathered around a large concrete shelter for the fisherman which bore the panda badge of the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Presumably that organisation had sponsored its construction. The fishing fleet was making its way ashore and several boats were being dragged up on the sand, their lateen sails flapped idly in the breeze. Cleaning of the catch took place on the spot and the fish were obviously intended for local consumption. I recognised a Red Snapper as a small boy ran past holding it aloft in delight.

Then I walked on to the beach and stared down at the strand line in sheer disbelief. There, scarcely a yard in front of my feet was a large and perfect specimen of Lambis chiragra f. arthritica, Roding 1798; a few yards further on I found perfect specimens of L. lambis, L. 1578 and L. crocata, Link 1807. Three Lambis species in the first 5 minutes; surely I must be dreaming? But the dream continued with fine specimens of Conus betulinus L. 1758, the rare yellow form of Vasum rhinoceros, Gmelin 1791, a large and colourful Strombus lentiginosus L. 1758, large quantaties of S. gibberulus gibberulus, L.1758 and S. decorus decorus, Roding 1798, and a large specimen of Phasianella variegata, Lamarck 1822. Among the bivalves there were pairs of Codakia tigerina, L. 1758 and C. punctata, L 1758 and valves of Tellina staurella, Lamarck 1818.

I soon realised that I had chanced upon a virgin beach where none had collected before me and where it had not occurred to the local inhabitants to commercialise the treasures tossed up on their sands. I was carrying my camera, handbag and other equipment safely concealed from public gaze in a large beach bag. As soon as I had filled one plastic bag with shells I tucked it quickly and surreptitiously out of sight in the beach bag and pulled out an empty bag instead. Thus when I reached the villagers on my return journey I had only few shells in a transparent bag. Nobody pestered me till I happened to take a photograph of the beach which included one of the many small children and his father came up asking for money. I suggested he should send his son to school where he would learn to read and write and could get a job when he left so that he would not need to beg! I think the message went home for the father moved away. Later at the restaurant where we had lunch I saw a strongbox asking for donations to a "School development project" and I was able to make a contribution which went some way towards compensating the villagers for the beautiful shells I had been able to find.

James reached the restaurant at the same time as I reluctantly left the beach. He had had a splendid morning diving from a boat and swimming alongside dolphins who had become accustomed to meeting tourists. His guide brought me a large cone, C. terebra thomasi, Sowerby 1881, but seeing that the creature inside was alive I asked him to return it to the sea, since I make it a rule never to take live material for reasons of conservation, as well as of practicality, during my foreign tours.

Similarly, when I came across a specimen of Achatina reticulata, Pfeiffer 1845, a huge creature with a shell about 7" long and a body to match, which had accidentally fallen from the low cliff, I captured it with my camera, which alas was fitted only with a 28mm. lens at the time.

I had an opportunity of explaining my collecting policy whilst taking down the names of the shells on display at the natural History Museum in Stone Town. I was approached by a tourist guide accompanying a couple who wished to collect some shells and who wondered whether it was forbidden. I informed them it was my understanding that collecting was discouraged without being actually forbidden. My own collection was for the purposes of scientific study, I emphasised, (the residents of Kizimakazi when similarly informed had assumed I was a representative of WWFN!). However, for conservation reasons I avoided taking live material and of course I wouldn't touch the coral which the islanders regard as a part of their island and a source of their livelihood. The guide nodded approvingly and I felt I had struck the right balance between the developed and the developing worlds.

A full chart of my finds at the three locations is appended to this article. Once again my grateful thanks are due to Mr Kevin Brown for his assistance with the indentification and for the loan of his books "The Sea Shells of Dar es Salaam" by J F Spry, published in two volumes in Tanzania. My other chief source of knowledge was, as usual, the invaluable "Compendium of Sea Shells" by Dr Tucker Abbott and S. Peter Dance as well as "Sea Shells of Eastern Arabia" pub. Motivate ed. S. Peter Dance.

Our thanks to the specialist travel company for their excellent pictures of Zanzibar.

List of species found

Cellana rota, Gmelin 1791
Trochus maculatus, L.1758
Phasianella variegata, Lamarck 1822
Nerita albicilla, L.1758
N. chamaeleon, L.1758
N. planospira, Anton 1839
N. plicata, L.1758
N. undata, L. 1758
Terebralia palustris, L. 1767
Cerithium nodulosum, Brugiere 1792
C. caeruleum,Sowerby 1855
C. columna, Sowerby 1834
Calyptraea pellucida, Reeve 1859
Malluvium lissum,Smith 1894
Strombus urceus, L.1758
S. mutabilis, Swainson 1821
S. lentiginosus, 1758
S. decorus decorus, Roding 1798
S. decorus masirensis, Moolenbeek & Dekker 1993
S. gibberulus gibberulus, L.1758
S. gibberulus albus, Morch 1850
Lambis lambis, L. 1758
L. crocata crocata, Link 1807
L. chiragra f. arthritica, Roding 1798
Trivirostra oryza, Lamarck 1811
Cypraea annulus, L. 1758
C. carneola, L. 1758
C. caurica, L. 1758
C. chinensis, Gmelin 1791
C. helvola, L. 1758
C. lynx, L. 1758
C. moneta, L. 1758
C. vitellus, L. 1758
C. clandestina passerina, Melvill 1888
Polinices mamilla, L. 1758
Natica gualteriana, Recluz 1844
Malea pomum, L. 1758
Tonna luteostoma, Kuster 1857
T. perdix, L. 1758
Cymatium nicobaricum, Roding 1798
Naquetia triquetra, Born 1778
Chicoreus ramosus, L. 1758
Volema paradisiaca, Roding 1798
Nassarius coronatus, Bruguiere 1789
N. distortus, A Adams 1852
Pleuroploca trapezium, L. 1758
Ancilla mauritiana, Sowerby 1830
Vasum rhinoceros, Gmelin 1791
V. turbinellus, L. 1758
Harpa harpa, L. 1758
Conus namocanus, Hwass 1792
C. augur, Lightfoot 1786
C. betu1inus, L 1758
C. chaldeus, Roding 1798
C. coronatus, Gmelin 1791
C. ebraeus, L. 1758
C. fulgetrum, Sowerby, 1831
C. lividus, Hwass 1972
C. rniles, L. 1758
C. terebra thomasi, Sowerby 1881
C. tessulatus, Born l778
C. virgo, L. 1758
Bulla ampulla, L. 1758
Atys cylindricus, Hebling 1779
Melampus castaneus, Muhlfield 1815

Arca naviculularis, Bruguiere 1789
A. avellana, Lamarck 1819
Anadara antiquata, L. 1758
A. uropygimelana, Bory St Vincent 1824
Barbatia amygdalumtostum, Roding 1798
B. velata, Sowerby 1843
Glycymeris petunculus, L. 1758
Modiolus auriculatus, Krauss 1848
Brachidontes variabilis, Krauss 1848
Servatrina pectinata, L. 1767
Pinctada radiata, Leach 1814
P radiata f. nigra, Gould 1850
P. margaritifera, L. 1758
Isognomon isognomon, L. 1758
Chlamys senatoria, Gmelin 1791
Spondylus marisrubri, Roding 1798
Striostrea margaritacea, Lamarck 1819
Saccostrea cuccullata, Born 1778
Codakia punctata, L. 1758
C. tigerina, L. 1758
Ctena bella, Conrad 1837
Lucina victorialis, Melvill 1899
Wallucina erithraea, Issel 1869
Diplodonta genethila, Melvill 1898
Chama reflexa, Reeve 1846
Beguina gubernaculum, Reeve 1843
Bourdotia boschorum, Dekker & Goud 1994
Trachycardium flavum, L. 1758
T. elongatum, Bruguiere 1789
Fragum fragum, L. 1758
Mactra ovalina, Lamarck 1818
Atactodea glabrata, Gmelin 1791
Tellina staurel1a, Lamarck 1818
T. palatum, Iredale 1929
T. claudia, Melvil1 & Standen 1907
Cadella semen, Henley 1845
Circe rugifera, Lamarck 1818
Asaphis violescens, Forsskal 1775
Gafrarium pectinatum, L. 1758
G. tumidum, Roding 1798
Donax cuneatus, L. 1758
Dosinia alta, Dunker 1848

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