Socotra Island

This is an ‘unknown’ island, (indeed even the origin of the island’s name is unknown!) rarely visited semi desert, medieval island in an unknown part of the world. 380km south of Ras Fartak on the Gulf of Aden has the richest biodiversity of the said 4 islands, viz. Galapagos, Falklands, Fair Isle. Indeed this island is one of the richest bio diverse islands on earth. Socotra Island covers an area of 3626sq km, spanning 133km east to west, 43km north to south. It has also been termed the Galapagos of the Eastern Ocean. Although the Portugese temporarily annexed this island in 1507 from the ruling Bedouin Mahri sultan, they were routed four years later in 1511. The earliest scientific expedition was in 1880 by Sir Isaac Balfour and later by Douglas Botting’s Oxford University expedition in 1956. The Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh, Centre for Middle Eastern Plants has dominated latter Socotra flora research. The human population comprises approximately 50,000. In 2008, Socotra gained UNESCO World Heritage listing.

“Socotra and its three smaller outlying islands, separated from other landmasses for 18 million years, are home to more than a thousand endemic species: plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.” National Geographic Vol.221, No.6, June 2012.

There are 800 terrestrial and marine invertebrates (estimate.) 308 Plants, 37% endemic. Consider that Ethiopia on continental Africa, on a similar latitude as Socotra and roughly 2000km west has 476 endemic plants. Socotra boasts 27 reptiles and no indigenous large land mammals, though some bats occur and an Indian civet cat. There are only 8 endemic bird species.

Although Socotra is a naturalists dream island, the endemic bird species are relatively small with respect to the volume of migrant visiting birds, whether from the Eastern Paleartic, Arabian continent or from Africa.

To put Socotra in botanic perspective is an entirely different matter though. The number of endemic plant species, those found nowhere else, per square kilometer on Socotra and its 3 outlying islands is the 4th highest of any island group on Earth after Seychelles, New Caledonia and Hawaii. However, in Socotra’s 1519 meter high Hajhir mountains the highest density of endemic plants is to be found anywhere in southwest Asia. When ranking the world’s arid bio-diversity plant hot spots, the Horn of Africa and Succulent Karoo biome (including the UNESCO World Heritage Site Richtersveld, with over 5000 plant species with 40% endemism) lead the field. Obviously taking cognisance that those two regions are on the continental land mass of Africa and not to be confused with island endemism.

Having botanized in some desert & high desert biomes I would rank the Richtersveld in South Africa, No.1 by a considerable distance. “The Richtersveld will make a permanent impression on your memory and affections. It certainly has done so in mine”, Sir David Attenborough. Number two would be Joshua Tree in Southern California USA,straddling the boundary between the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, with over 50 species of mammals, 40 species of reptiles, and 700 species of plants, lying across the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds. Socotra Island’s Hajhir Mountains and Homhil, as Number 3, and the Eastern Danikil and Foret du Day in Northern Djibouti as Number 4. This ranking is but my own, obviously anecdotal, and shows Socotra as an island punching way above its weight against the massive bio-diversity of continental land masses. Sadly the bio-diversity hotspot of The Horn of Africa I have not visited, and due to the civil war in Somalia that window of opportunity might never open again for a generation?

Hajhir Mountains. The Highest diversity of endemic plants to be found anywhere in southwest Asia

Bedouin Sheikh, Diksam Plateau

Diksam Plateau Canyon

Socotra Buntings, Diksam Canyon

Ditwah Lagoon

Socotra Sunbird, Wadi Di Negelen

Goat Farmer, Wadi Di Negelen

Dusk, Fishing Village On The Arabian Sea

Egyptian Vulture, Juvenile

Egyptian Vulture, Juvenile In Profile

Socotra Scops Owl

Dragon’s Blood Tree, Diksam

Dragon’s Blood Forest At Homhil

Socotra Buzzard, Homhil

Dragon’s Blood Tree Resin

Socotra Lizard, Mesalina Sp.,momi Plateau

Desert Rose In Bloom, March

Desert Rose Flower, Zahr Plain

Frankinsense trees, Maalah Plateau

Myrrh Tree, Homhil

Bruce’s Green Pigeon

Cream- Coloured Courser

Pufferfish Off Qulansiya

Qulansiya And Ras Shuab Looking West

Socotra Golden-winged Grosbeak, Wadi Di Negelen

Yemen’s Socotra Island is in many respects a dichotomy. It is the most untouched and pristine of the 4 said islands but is currently entering the (self imposed) habitat destruction phase that the Galapagos Islands went through more than 200 years ago. Yemen has the fastest growing population in the Arabic world. On the mainland, a multiplying generation of unemployed, conservation-ignorant populace are chiefly involved with survival in a post revolutionary society emerging from the stone age, into a civil war. Arial drones operated from Nevada, USA, scour the landscape from Aden in the West to the Hydramawt in the East searching for enemies of the West. Yemen is the only narco-state on the Arabian Peninsula. The World Health Organization conservatively estimates that 80% of adult Yemeni males and 40% of females chew qat (Catha edulis), on a daily basis. By mid afternoon it is safe to estimate that well over half the entire population of Yemen is ‘stoned’ and there is no economy to speak of, ditto Socotra now. Estimates of 90% of new wells in desert Yemen are used for qat fields not crops.

The relative isolation for millennia of Socotra Island ended in 1999 with the construction of a modern airport. From 140 international visitors in 2000 to 4000 in 2010, Socotra was forced out of the Stone Age into the Internet age. Almost daily flights from the mainland capital of Sanaa, quickly brought swathes of the 50,000 Socotra Island populace under the daily fresh influence of Yemen’s export narcotic crop, qat. The drugs leaves desiccate in 3 days, so Socotra secured a daily air freighted supply.

Climate change too has affected Socotra as it has Galapagos, Fair Isle and the Falklands. The principle casualty being the iconic Socotra Dragon’s blood Tree, Dracena Cinnabari, where few young trees are apparent under the adult trees and mature trees are dying as the highland mists decrease and seasonal cloud cover have resulted from climate change. The Dragon’s Blood tree shares many characteristics with similar plants and succulents I have seen botanizing on the Namibian Skeleton Coast, in Southern Africa and Atacama Desert Coast of Chile, South America, that rely on mist for condensation of water on their leaves for moisture in desert habitats. I have also witnessed similar extinction phenomenon on the last Dragon’s Blood trees in Africa, approximately 1250km. West of Socotra on a similar latitude, on the Western ridges of the Gulf of Aden in Djibouti. The mature trees are dying and there are no new trees whatsoever. Extinction of Dracena Cinnabari is eminent on the African continent. Scientists predict Socotra’s Dragon blood trees will similarly be extinct within a century.

Dragon Blood forest at Homhil Socotra Island, Yemen.

Dragon Blood forest becoming extinct from climate change. Western Gulf of Aden, Djibouti, north east Africa. It is predicted Socotra's Dragon Blood trees will be similarly extinct in a century.

"A cloud gathers,the rain falls,men live; the cloud disperses without rain and men and animals die. In the deserts of southern Arabia there is no rhythm of the seasons,no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the years".

Sir Wilfred Thesiger (who crossed the Yemeni-Saudi Empty Quarter twice in 1946 " 1948 to Abu Dhabi,UAE and the Danikil Desert from Awash, Abyssinia to Tajura, Djibouti in 1933/4).

On Socotra Island, endemic habitat destruction is occurring daily with the construction of multiple new roads around and across the island. In 2003, the Yemeni Government itself destroyed approximately 10% of the islands petroglyphs with new road construction near Iryoshi. In the new millennium it is unconscionable to willingly destroy the natural life of a unique island that encompasses bio diverse species from Africa, Asia and Europe.

In an imperfect world it is difficult to understand how primitive ethnic inhabitants will suddenly develop a conservation consciousness. What the significance of a World Heritage Site means to the ethnic Socotri other than the possibility of more tourists to rip off, is a an eco-conundrum? Whilst Yemen is mired in a tribal and religious ideological struggle, with foreigners killed and abducted, eco-tourism and university sponsored academia on Socotra Island will decline indefinitely. A sea voyage to Socotra is also out of the question as Somali (another narco state,) pirates control the Arabian Sea surrounding Socotra. For naturalists Socotra Island has now become as inaccessible as North Korea. Mercifully Edinburgh University has catalogued most of the flora. Mercifully ornithologists, inter alia, Ash, Redman, Stevenson, Fanshaw in the Northern Hemisphere and Peter Ryan at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town have recorded the avifauna before the security door to Yemen was closed. Socotra Island is mysteriously isolated again.

From my travels across the Arabic world, trans Sahara from Morocco to Egypt and across the Arabian Gulf, I cannot for see the Socotri themselves rising up to meet this sustainable challenge of developing a conservation consciousness. I have not seen a collective national conservation consciousness from any Arabic country, certainly not one in a perpetual narcotic state. The tiny Emirate of Abu Dhabi, is perhaps the conservation exception. Yemen ranks the most visually blighted countries that I have seen across the Arabic world. The Yemen that Freya Stark and others so iconically photographed in a different generation,(the 1930's and 194 0's) does still exist, but it is harder to find and is invariably blighted.