Strange world

Described as the most alien-looking place on earth, Socotra Island is a treasure chest of endemic species. But its future is at a crossroads.


Imagine waking up on an empty beach, not knowing where you are. You notice the quiet azure waters beside you; the harsh rock formations towering above. You climb them and discover a dusty and undeveloped landscape. The trees look strange, like giant mushrooms, or flying saucers planted on a stilk. Other trees have stocky, inflated trunks. There are animals you have never seen before. You observe the trails of humans, but there is no infrastructure in sight.

This is Socotra Island, a remote 700-million-year-old island located 380 kilometres (235 miles) off the south-east coast of Yemen. It is part of the four-island Socotra archipelago, of which its 3,625 square kilometres (1,400 square miles) make up 95 per cent of the overall surface. Socotra Island once belonged to mainland Africa and Arabia, but broke loose some 20 million years ago. In seclusion, a rich world of endemic species has evolved; flora and fauna not found anywhere else on earth. Roughly 50,000 people also live here, most of them immigrants who have arrived since the late 1990s.

The island is often called the ‘Galápagos of the Indian Ocean’ due to its high concentration of endemic species. (Although the Galápagos are volcanic islands, whereas Socotra was once part of a continent.) According to UNESCO, 37 per cent of its 825 plants are endemic, as are 90 per cent of all snails and reptiles. The chief symbol of Socotra’s endemism is the previously-described ‘flying saucer’ tree, called ‘Dragon’s Blood Tree’, which, when its branches are cut, “bleeds” a dark red resin that early Greek and Roman settlers believed had medical benefits. It even features on the Yemeni 20 rial coin. But like much else on the island, it has been endangered by overpopulation and new infrastructure. “Socotra’s biodiversity is like an ancient book of beautiful, precious texts, of which only one copy remains,” says Dr Kay Van Damme, a leading academic on the island and chairman of Friends of Socotra. “But it is fragile to the softest touch.”


Local people at Socotra have for centuries developed an intuitive understanding of their natural environment. Due to strong surrounding winds and high waves, the island is only accessible by boat four months a year. Left in isolation, Socotrans had no choice but to become self-sustainable. They used herbs, honey and snails for medical purposes. They established fisheries and relied on goats, sheep and camels. However, everything was carefully regulated, as not to overexploit the nature on which their livelihoods depended. “The environment was the only resource for the people,” says Abduljameel Abdullah Ali, administrative assistant at the UN’s Socotra Governance & Biodiversity Project. “This is why they set up local legislation to make sure there was a sustainable use of the environment.”

But in 1997, everything changed. An airport was built on the island, revolutionising access from the mainland. “It was the most significant thing to happen to Socotra,” says Ali. Since then, immigrants and tourists have arrived in growing numbers. Basic infrastructure has been introduced: paved roads, running water, electricity; even internet. But ancient rules are being forsaken. Roads are built too close to the coastal regions. Some even run through natural protection areas. Waste management and invasive species are posing problems. New projects are being proposed: schools, a hospital, small hostels and more electricity access in Hadibu, the capital.

Several issues remain unsolved. Before the political unrest in Yemen, the government wanted ecotourism to save the island, which is among the country’s poorest areas and relies on financial aid from NGOs. For that, new roads and buildings are required. But such projects jeopardise the island’s natural environment. Ali says that while Yemen waits for political reform, the big decisions have been put on hold.


Low-impact ecotourism is theoretically the answer: fewer tourists, careful travel arrangements, cash to the locals. Local guides have been trained by experts in order to involve Socotrans as much as possible. But, says Van Damme, “when the facilities are there, it can quickly develop into high-impact tourism.” And that has been the tendency. In 2000, 140 people visited the island. In 2011, the number was 3,788, of which 95 per cent were tourists. In a recent survey, nearly 60 per cent of Socotra’s tourists named beaches as their favourite part of the trip. Nine per cent cited the flora and fauna. Something is clearly wrong.

“We have reached a delicate tipping point between a rapid decline of Socotra’s biodiversity or its survival,” says Van Damme. “Political upheavals in Yemen will initiate changes in decision-making on long-term policies and determine future strategies. The decisions of today will affect Yemen’s biodiversity for decades to come.”

On the bright side, a boost has been UNESCO’s listing of the island in 2008. More conservation efforts have taken place, the latest being a €6million (£5.2million, $7.9million) agreement in January between the Yemeni government and the German Agency for International Cooperation to support Socotra’s biodiversity. But for scientists and locals, the fragile environment is still at risk. “What we know for sure is that island biodiversity is vulnerable,” says Van Damme. “And when a species or an ecosystem is gone, all of its potential use is lost to us forever.”

Photos: Dmitry Saparov, Oleg Znamenskiy, Peter Sobolev [all via].