Zembra and Zembretta, Tunisia’s mystery islands
Tunis - Standing on the coast of the Gulf of Tunis, an onlooker can contemplate the magnificent scenery of two islands in the distance in the Mediterranean: Zembra and Zembretta. Majestically welcoming, the islands are a pleasant discovery for lovers of nature and birds.
Zembra and Zembretta, in the north-eastern Gulf of Tunis, make up a national park boasting ecological wealth of plants and birds as well as breathtaking landscapes open to visitors who want to enjoy hiking and camping.
Zembra, the largest island, expands 369 hectares and reaches 432 metres above sea level. Consisting of a rock formation, Zembra has stunning and captivating cliffs for visitors to enjoy. Zembretta, 8km east of Zembra, covers an area of 2 hectares.
The islands, famous for being one of the richest national parks in Tunisia, are well known as the Islands of Birds for the variety of them that nest on the islands. Wherever visitors wander on the islands, they are treated to various species of birds, some of which are unique to the islands. For many of the birds, the islands are the last safe resort from the threats of extinction.
“The islands were believed to host around 30,000 pairs of birds but recent reports point out that the number is much more significant. Today, it hosts more than 140,000 pairs of migrating birds that nest in the cliffs,” said Hichem Azafzaf, president of the Association of Friends of Birds.
“This puts the park in a higher rank on the level of the Mediterranean. This makes the park as the biggest colony of birds of the Cory’s shearwater in the Mediterranean.”
The Tunisian government banned fishing and hunting activities on the islands in 1973 to protect its unique ecosystem. The park was classified by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve in 1977.
“Zembra is a habitat for the nesting marine birds but it is also a stop on the migratory route of birds. They stop there before going to Italy to nest in Europe on their return journey from Europe to Africa,” Azafzaf said.
Internationally, the park is famous for hosting the threatened Mediterranean shearwater and also for the presence of the rare Audouin’s gull.
“Also, the islands have many endangered species of birds mostly shearwater and many other plant species that are to be protected by maintaining the virginity of the land. It cannot be altered by man,” Azafzaf said.
In addition to being a bird colony, the islands display a variety of plants. The islands’ vegetation is made up of dense bush and rare plants.
“There are palm trees that only exist on the islands and you cannot find them elsewhere. This is something that needs to be preserved for the next generations and must be protected,” said Majda Yaccoubi, president of Greenway for hiking, an association advocating ecological tourism.
The islands offer an adventurous hike through hills and along cliffs as well as a refreshing dive in the Mediterranean. One can enjoy mesmerising scenery of the sea amid the green hills.
“There has been a rise of interest in the islands as part of ecological tourism. There are guided visits by bird experts who can provide an educational and entertaining journey of the islands and its population of birds,” Azafzaf said.
“On the level of the gulf of Tunis, the coasts need to be protected and everyone must be on their guard to protect the marine life there that will save the islands from harm to its ecological systems.”
Not only do the islands exhibit a wealth of vegetation and birds, they also bear the marks of history as ruins of Roman and Phoenician settlements were discovered on the islands.
The park is open for visitors, providing designated areas for hiking and camping. It can be accessed by boat but only under the supervision of the Tunisian Coast Guard to assure the safety of the ecological system.
“It is a beauty to look at and the serene and unique landscape is to be experienced at least once in your life. In addition to all that, it is an exciting adventure to camp there,” Yaccoubi said.
She added: “Campers who visited the islands for the first time were amazed by how captivating nature can be around here. The sea is of a unique blue and the beaches are clean. Some people said that they could not possibly swim elsewhere after discovering those virgin beaches. For many of them, it felt like a paradise out of this world.”