Socotra

Republic of Yemen

Socotra Island

Socotra has been described as one of the most alien-looking place on Earth, and it’s not hard to see why. It is very isolated with a harsh, dry climate and as a result a third of its plant-life is found nowhere else, including the famous Dragon’s Blood Tree, a very-unnatural looking umbrella-shaped tree which produces red sap. There are also a large number of birds, spiders and other animals native to the island, and coral reefs around it which similarly have a large number of endemic (i.e. only found there) species. Socotra is considered the most biodiverse place in the Arabian sea, and is a World Heritage Site.

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Socotra in General

Socotra or Suqotra (Arabic سقطرى) is a small archipelago of four islands and islets in the Indian Ocean.  At 12o 30’N – 53o50’E the island lies about 240 km east of Somalia and about 380 km south of Yemen, some 200 kilometers off the Horn of Africa, 600 km due east from Aden, and some 400 km south of the Republic of Yemen mainland at Mukalla, which now administers the island. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Socotra was administered by the Banu Afrar Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra, who continued in the 20th century under the British. The archipelago consists of the mountainous main island of Socotra (3665 km² ) and three smaller islands, Abd Al Kuri, and “the Brothers” Samha and Darsa, plus other uninhabitable rock outcrops. Abd Al Kuri and Samha have a population of a few hundred people between them. Darsa is uninhabited.

The climate is generally tropical desert, with rainfall being light, seasonal (winter) and more abundant at the higher ground in the interior than along the coastal lowlands.

Socotra has three geographical terrains: the narrow coastal plains,  a limestone plateau permeated with karstic caves, and the Hagghier mountains.

Socotra Island Map

Socotra is one of the most isolated bits of land on earth, being of continental landmass origin (i.e., not of volcanic origin). The island probably detached from Africa as a fault block, in the same set of rifting events that have opened the Gulf of Aden to its west. The long geological isolation of the archipelago and its fierce heat and drought have combined to create a unique and spectacular endemic flora that would be highly vulnerable to change. Surveys have revealed that more than a third of the 900 or so plant species of Socotra are found nowhere else in the world. Botanists rank the flora of Socotra among the ten most endangered island floras in the world. The archipelago is a site of global importance for biodiversity conservation and a possible center for ecotourism. The Semitic language, Socotri, is only spoken on the archipelago, although there is a large colony of Socotrans living near Dubai.

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One of the most striking of Socotra’s plants is the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), which is a very strange-looking, umbrella-shaped tree. Its red sap was the dragon’s blood of the ancients, sought after as a medicine and a dye.

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As with many isolated island systems, bats and civet cats are the only mammals native to Socotra. In contrast, the marine biodiversity around Socotra is rich, characterized by a unique mixture of species that are also found in far flung biogeographic regions, such as the western Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, Arabia, East Africa and the wider Indo-Pacific.

The monsoonal climate is strong.  From June to September the island has traditionally been inaccessible, because of exceedingly strong monsoon winds, high seas, and strong ocean currents. In July 1999 a new airport opened Socotra to the outside world all year round. Most Socotrans still live without electricity, running water or a paved road, but these facilities have increased somewhat since 2002. At the end of the 1990s a United Nations Development Program was launched with the aim of providing a close survey of the island of Socotra, and some development has occurred alongside this program.

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A brief history about Socotra

Socotra was called Dioskouridou ("of the Dioscurides") in the 1st century AD, in the “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” an early shipping manual. “Dioscoridou is very large but desert and marshy, having rivers in it and crocodiles and many snakes and great lizards, of which the flesh is eaten and the fat melted and used instead of olive oil" – thus commented the author of the Periplus. The island that he was describing was Socotra, which today forms part of the Republic of Yemen. The crocodiles and giant lizards referred to by the author of the Periplus are no longer present there today. No fossils have so far been discovered but this is not to say that they did not exist. Indeed, the Indian Ocean crocodile survived right up to the 17th century AD when it was described by sailors visiting the Seychelles, which lie 1,600 km due south. Such lost inhabitants apart however, Socotra remains, from a natural history viewpoint, one of the most fascinating places in the world. Its unique character is the result of a long period of isolation. As a result, many animals and plants that live today on Socotra are found nowhere else on earth. The very high degree of endemism is what makes Socotra such an important place in terms of global wildlife conservation, and it is sometimes called the Galapagos of the East. It is believed that some of the plants and animals found on Socotra are in fact ancient relics from a much larger land mass (Africa) which have been preserved here as a result of the fact that the Hagghir massif has not been totally submerged.

                                                                                                                                                       In the notes to his translation of the Periplus, G.W.B. Huntingford remarks that the name Suqotra is not Greek in origin, but from the Sanskrit dvipa sukhadhara ("island of bliss"). Another probable origin of the name is the Arabic “Suq” meaning “market” and “qotra” meaning “dripping frankincense”. The ancient frankincense route that went through to Jerusalem and to Europe, began on Socotra, and the present town of Suq on the north coast near Hadiboh, was the port from which the frankincense (and myrrh and aloes) began its journey. A tradition holds that the inhabitants were converted to Christianity by Thomas the apostle in AD 52, and that Thomas was once shipwrecked on Socotra during his frequent journeys to India, and the shipwreck was used to build a church. In the 10th century the Arab geographer Abu Zaid Hassan states that in his time most of the inhabitants were Christians.

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The famous Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324) visited Socotra and accused the Socotrans of having the supernatural ability to control the weather and to cause shipwrecks. He wrote of Socotra saying, “I give you my word that the people of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world. It is true that the archbishop does not approve of these enchantments and rebukes them for the practice. But this has no effect, because they say that their forefathers did these things of old.

The explorer Tristão da Cunha put ashore in the early 16th century and considered Socotra conquered for Portugal. He landed at the previously mentioned port town of Suq which was the old capital of the Socotran sultans. A military force soon came and occupied Suq (but not Socotra) for about seven years from 1504 to 1511. Suq was the site of a fierce battle with the Suqotrans, which was partly the cause of the eventual Portuguese departure, although the deprivation in living there was also a big factor. Today, the remains of the old Portuguese fort can be seen by climbing the rocky outcrop beside Suq, and the rump pillars of a church built by the Portuguese can be seen on the edge of the town. At this time Christianity had disappeared from the island except for stone crosses at which the Portuguese Alvares said people worshipped. However, during a visit to the island in 1542, Francis Xavier found a group of people claiming to be descended from the converts made by St. Thomas.

The islands passed under the control of the Mahra sultans in 1511, but eventually became a British protectorate in 1886, and it became an important strategic stop-over for British shipping in the area. It was an important air base for the British in World War two, and the remains of the main airfield can be seen inland from Suq. Some 10 British airmen are buried on cemetery hill near the Mori airfield, and all these were all killed in crashes during World War 2. A German U boat scuttled a dhow off Qalansiya, and was apparently sunk by later action of the air force. With the independence of South Yemen from the British in 1969, the islands came under the southern government of the Democratic Republic of Yemen, and then after unification with the north in 1990, the island came under the governance of the new Republic of Yemen.

Apart from some 19th century travel accounts (such as Bent) and a few more recent expeditions, including that of the Oxford University team led by Douglas Botting (July-August 1955), and a British joint-services and civilian expedition (in 1967), the Socotra archipelago has received relatively little attention from the scientific community, being virtually isolated from the rest of the world. Until the end of the twentieth century it was effectively closed to foreign visitors by a combination of military considerations and extreme natural conditions. Books have been published by the leaders of the above expeditions which can be found in the large English libraries of the world. (see Island of the Dragons Blood, by Douglas Botting, from the 1955 expedition, and Socotra: Island of Tranquillity, by Brian Doe, published by Immel Publishing, 1992). Other more recent books of excellent quality and scholarship have been published about Socotran fauna and flora by Wolfgang Wranik, and by Tony Miller and Miranda Morris, who have devoted many years of research to Socotra since the early 1980’s. Publications are now available also at the center for the Socotra Conservation and Development Fund in Hadiboh, which began in the late 1990’s as a United Nations research and development venture, and has done considerable scientific research on the Socotra Archipelago.

The People and Culture of Socotra

The Socotra Archipelago is divided into two administrative districts, Hadibo and Qalansiya, which also includes the islands of Abdul Kuri, Darsa and Samhah. Both districts come under the administration of the Governor of Hadramaut in al-Mukalla, The population of the entire Archipelago is estimated at 70,000 , with most people living on Socotra Island and concentrated in the capital town of Hadibo and the western town of Qalansiya. Owing to the isolation of the islands, the ancient language of Socotra was able to survive. Today both Socotri and Arabic are spoken on the island.

Socotra is distinguished by a distinct and unique cultural history.  Although it is unlikely that the legend that Aristotle advised Alexander the Great to send colonists to Socotra to harvest aloe is true, the existence of such a legend points to Socotra being “on the map” already in ancient times.  Archaeological work over the last century has shown that the island was inhabited from at least the first centuries A.D., and that Socotra was visited and settled by Africans, Arabs and Indians.  Socotra’s language – belonging to a group of Semitic South-Arabian languages – was most probably spoken in some form on the island even at this time.  Christianity was the island’s most prominent religion until the 15-16th centuries, when Socotra came increasingly under the influence of the Mahran Sultanate of eastern Yemen.  It is difficult to say how quickly Socotra’s Islamization proceeded, but by the end of the 18th century at the latest the last vestiges of Christianity had disappeared.  During the 19th century Socotra came to attract the attention of great powers again with the interest of Great Britain the region culminating in the island becoming a British protectorate in the 1870s.  British influence on Socotra ceased in 1967, when the Socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen came to power in Southern Yemen.  In 1990 North and South Yemen were unified and Socotra has been part of a unified Yemen ever since.

Socotra’s population is divided between the inhabitants of the mountainous interior and the islands’ coastal regions.  The former have traditionally made their living herding goats, sheep and cows and harvesting their date palms, while the latter’s livelihood has been based on fishing.  Some of the fishermen on the island’s northern coast are of African origin, having been brought over at the end of the 19th century to work for the Sultan.  Since 1999, when the island’s airstrip was lengthened, enabling flights year-round, including during the four month summer monsoon, development on the island has expanded rapidly.  Simultaneously, Yemenis from the mainland have immigrated to Socotra in greater numbers, opening numerous shops in the island’s capital, Hadibo. Socotra heavily depends on outside support, which comes mainly from the Yemeni Government and some development programs of NGO’s and International Organizations. An estimated number of 8,000 Socotris live and work in the Emirates,   probably contributing considerably to the income of related families on the island. Due to the insufficient provision of basic human needs, such as access to sustainable livelihoods, safe water, health services, education etc.., a majority of the population of Socotra Archipelago are considered to live below the absolute poverty line.

Today, as the memory of the days when Socotra was ruled by local sultans fades with the passing of the island’s older generations, Socotra finds itself at a crossroads.  Will the Socotris be able to preserve their environment, their culture and language while benefiting from development and tourism, or will Socotra suffer the fate of so many other once isolated regions of the world and lose its unique human and natural heritage as it is increasingly integrated into world economic flows?

General Climate

There are two annual monsoons: the south-west monsoon, which kicks up high seas around the island from early June to early October (this monsoon occasionally brings heavy rains in June), has created a physical barrier to access by sea since the earliest times. These intercontinental stratospheric winds blow from Africa towards the Himalaya mountains, bringing the wet to India. But as they pass over Socotra they are caught by the nearly 5000 ft. Hagghier mountains and dragged fiercely down over the northern coast. The wind blows on the north coast, non-stop, day and night, for three months at approximately 90 kilometers per hour with some gusts at 180 kph, in the area of Hadibo, between Howlaf and Mori. The north-east monsoon from April to May delivers a smaller amount of precipitation. The annual rainfall varies between 130 to 170 mm/hour. Even during the calmer months sea landings may still be difficult due to a combination of logistical problems, including the absence of adequate harbor facilities. But in 1999, a new airstrip was built (the longest in the Yemen) facing into the monsoon winds, allowing the Boeing planes the ability to land all year round. So as tourists you can come to Socotra at any time, depending on what you want to experience.

Socotra Weather Patterns for Tourists Travel

September:

Coming out of the windy season, and still somewhat windy on the north coast. The sea is just navigable; usually no rain and the temperature still quite warm.

October:

Wind now on shore, (usually just a breeze) from the North East, usually bringing some rains to the island, but maybe only a few days of intermittent heavy and scattered showers. But usually most parts of the island get the effects of this rain. Last year (2005) there was no rain in October. And the temperature is cooling down, but still warm.

November to February:

These are the pleasant months. There can still be rain in November, even into December, but usually only scattered, and not very frequent. The sea begins to calm down, and travel in small boats is possible. The best month to travel to the islands is February or better still March/ April. On the Hagghier Mountains everything is green so there has been a good rain up there, and also behind the mountains.  But on the top of the mountains, especially at Scant at this time, the temperature can be very cold with frosty mornings!!! At other times the mountains are swept by wind gusts all day, which drive clouds across the top at break kneck speed, and lift your tent off the ground!!

March/April/May:

Warming up, and at mid March the midday temperature can be 30 degrees centigrade, with developing humidity. April and May are quite hot, up to 38 degrees near the coasts, and still the weather is coming gently from the north east. But it is quite a lot cooler on the top of the mountain range, and at Scant you would still need a covering at night to keep warm, but probably not a sleeping bag. These are the best months to visit the island. Sometimes there are more rains in April (a couple of days?) or even in May.

June/July/ August:

These are the very windy months on the north coast especially. The south coast is fairly calm at the same time. The winds blow in Hadibo day and night for three months at about 80 kph, only slacking off most days for an hour or two in the afternoon to perhaps 60kph. Gusts have been recorded at the port area, Howlaf, at 180kph. These winds are the base of the big inter-continental winds that blow at this time of the year from the high pressure over Africa to the low pressure over the Himalayas, bringing the monsoon to the Indian sub-continent. The tops of the mountains catch these winds and pull them down over the north coast of Socotra. Schools close, and fishing stops, except for a couple of places such as Deleisha, but all round the island fishing is limited by the strong ocean currents at this time of the year. At this time the temperature drops by about 5 degrees centigrade, but it is not really a time for normal  tourism except for surfing.  The weather still calmer in the middle of the island and the south, so it is possible to make tours on the other side of the island (the southern west side). There are no rains accompanying these winds. The Boeing aircraft land and take off safely throughout this period, because the airstrip is straight up and down the wind direction allowing planes land and take off straight into the wind.

Natural History

Socotra is characterized by the unique land and marine biodiversity. The island itself measures approximately 125 kms long by 45 kms wide and covers a total area of 3665 sq kms.  Topographically it can be divided into three main zones: the coastal plains, a limestone plateau and the Hagghir Mountains. The island is sparsely vegetated and dominated by xenomorphic (drought resistant) forms which are well adapted to the harsh conditions, including the desiccating effects of sun and wind. Only in sheltered valleys and higher mountain areas is the vegetation more luxuriant. Open deciduous shrubland of the coastal plains and low inland hills is dominated by the common shrub Croton socotranus and the bizarre tree succulents, the desert rose, Adenium obesum socotranum, and the cucumber tree, Dendrosicyos socotranus. Higher altitudes are home to a variety of frankincense trees, three endemic Suqotran aloes, and wild pomegranate. One of the most famous botanical curiosities of Suqotra is the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari) which is restricted to the zones of submontane thicket and montane grassland. The tree is so named because any injury to the bark results in a deep red liquid exuding from the scar. It was compared  to the "blood of Abel” in ancient history. It is called Dum al Axwein, “blood of the two brothers” Cain and Abel, in the present day Arabic language. The Suqotri name “Arriyahib” has no connection to the Arabic.

Flora

Scientists first reached the remote Socotra Archipelago in 1880, when Scottish botanist Isaac Bailey Balfour collected around 500 plants. Over 200 were species new to science. To date, approximately 900 vascular plants have been recorded from Socotra, of which between 300(including some fifteen species restricted to Abd al Kuri) are found nowhere else (i.e. endemic species) they create weird vegetation – and make the archipelago the world’s tenth richest island group for endemic plant species.

Many are strange-looking remnants of ancient floras which long ago disappeared from the African/Arabian mainland.

Socotra’s flora has strong links with adjacent parts of Somalia and Arabia but some species and genera have interesting disjunctive distributions: Dracaena cinnabari, the Dragon’s Blood tree, is a tertiary relict with related species in southern Arabia, north-east Africa and the Canary Islands; species of Kalanchoe and Helichrysum show strong links with southern African species but perhaps the most strange distribution is that shown by the genus Thamnosma with T. socotrana on Soqotra and related species in southern Arabia, south-west Africa and south-west North America. Socotran’s flora includes plants which can be considered taxonomic relicts, that is with no close relatives, these include: Dirachma socotrana, one of only two species in the Dirachmaceae, a family related to the Malvaceae but with an interesting mixture of characters including 8 merous flowers, stamens opposite the petals and fruits with a dehiscence similar to that found in Geranium; Dendrosicyos Soqotranus the only arborescent member of the Cucurbitaceae and Wellstedia a small shrub of boraginaceous affinities but which is sometimes placed in a family of its own.

There is one sub-endemic family – the Dirachmaceae (recently a second species has been found in Somalia) and ten endemic genera: Angkalanthus, Ballochia and Trichocalyx (Acanthaceae), Duvaliandra and Soqotranthus (Asclepiadaceae), Haya (Caryophyllaceae), Lachnocapsa (Cruciferae), Dendrosicyos (Cucurbitaceae), Placoda (Rubiaceae) and Nirarathamnos (Umbelliferae). The families richest in endemics are Compositae (26), Acanthaceae (24), Euphorbiaceae (21), Labiatae (20) and Asclepiadaceae (11).

Perhaps the most notable of these are the podagrics or swollen-stemmed trees, these include: Dendrosicyos socotranus – which somewhat resembles a small baobab; Dorstenia gigas and Adenium obesum ssp. socotranum. One of the most interesting trees, and an important potential genetic resource is Punica protopunica. This is related to the pomegranate (P. granatum) but has smaller and less palatable fruits and is the only other species in the family Punicaceae. Several species on Socotra are of horticultural interest for instance Begonia socotrana, the hybrid parent of winter-flowering begonias, and Exacum affine – the Persian violet.

The least studied groups are the lichens, bryophytes and fungi. The people living on Socotra, especially the Bedouins, have a thorough knowledge of the flora, and many of the plants have traditional uses, such as providing livestock fodder, fuel, building materials, foods, gums, or resins. The majority of islanders still rely on livestock – and thus of necessity on the vegetation – for their survival. And the many sheep, goats, camels, cattle and donkeys of the island are supported solely by the island’s vegetation.

Plant extracts are still used in medicines, cosmetic and hygiene preparations, and in the manufacture of cordage, as a source of insecticide, and in tanning and dyeing. (Click hear to learn more about the flora traditional uses).

Fauna

Socotra’s fauna is just as fascinating. Among the land birds Socotra Island is home to 180 species of birds 6 species are endemic, ((Socotra sparrow – Socotra Cisticola – Socotra Starling – Socotra Sun bird –Socotra Warbler – and the rarest Socotra Bunting ( estimated with 1000 specimens alive) )).  as well as 14 sub-species, are restricted to Socotra. And also it’s a host point for many immigrated/breeding birds of over 45 species such as Flamingos, Kettle Egrets, Reef Hearns, Gulls, etc. And the highest density in the world for Egyptian Vulture has registered on the island.

More work is still needed to clarify the status of other species.

There are 190 species of butterfly and with a large number of endemics. The reptilian and insects fauna is also very rich 600 species of insects with 90% with high proportion of endemic. The reptilian fauna is also very rich with 19 out of a total of 22 species regarded as endemics.

Goats, shapes, caws, donkeys, and camels are common to come across. Bats and civil cat is the only mammals native to the island.

In the marine world Socotra has taken a spectacular place as it has mixture of species from different biogeography regions- the western Indian Ocean, the Red sea, East Africa and the wider Indo-Pacific. Despite of the small archipelago, Socotra Island is home to more than 680 Species of fishes are comparable to those of the Red Sea. and about 230 species of hard corals (five are endemics) and 30 species of soft corals. In addition to 300 speciesof crustacean (nine are endemics), 490 species of mollusks, and 230 species of algae. Sea-turtles also nest on the north of the island but there is a need for more work on these (as with almost all Socotra’s wildlife). An endemic fresh-water crab, Potamon socotrensis, is common in the temporary water-courses. In general the fresh-water habitats of the island have been little studied and it is still not clear whether there are endemic freshwater fish living there. Among the insects it is not surprising to find many forms with reduced wings, lessening the likelihood that they are blown off the island.

From a biogeographic perspective, Socotra is more closely linked with Africa than Arabia but there are also interesting affinities with other island groups such as the granitic Seychelles and even some remote islands of the Atlantic Ocean. There remains a great need for further studies of individual species and of main habitats on Socotra. To date, for example, there has been very little work done on the southern and western plateau, the more isolated granitic pinnacles, as well as the major part of the islands’ coastal waters.

Its unique character makes Socotra a natural World Heritage site. In practice however what matters is the effect on the ground. There is little doubt that potential revenue sources for the local population must be developed and these may include small-scale tourism, the cultivation and export of native plants, or the collection and storage of seeds and cuttings for propagation as part of international programs.

Given the social and developmental pressures which are now a fact of life on Socotra the continued survival of many endemic species, and of unique habitats is at risk. Socotra provides both an opportunity and a challenge for mankind. Fortunately the concept and value of conservation is still high on the agenda of the island’s people. It is to be hoped that local and national efforts to protect Suqotra’s unique wildlife are supported by international assistance and that the island’s uniqueness is maintained for the benefit and pleasure of future generations.

How to Conserve Socotra Island?

The floras of oceanic island are often particularly rich in species and show a high degree of endemism. Socotra is no exception. It has one of the richest island floras in the world – on a par with those of the Galapagos, Mauritius, Juan Fernandez and the Canary Islands. However, island ecosystems are often fragile and their native species vulnerable to overgrazing from introduced herbivores and to being out-competed by exotic plant species.

The threats to the Socotran flora can be illustrated by considering the fate of the vegetation on other oceanic islands. The decimation of Dracaena draco on the Canary Islands and Madeira is a particularly relevant example. On Socotra Dracaena cinnabari is widespread over the centre and east of the island and is the dominant tree in some areas. In the Canary Islands its closest relative, D. draco, is reduced to five trees on Madeira and is extinct on four of the seven Canary islands with no more than 200 trees surviving on the other three islands. On St Helena the vegetation has been almost totally decimated. Goats were introduced on to the island in 1513. By 1800 the forests which originally covered the islands were reduced to a few remnants and it has been estimated that, of the probable 100 endemics on the island, only 40 now remain.

There were undoubtedly drastic changes to the vegetation and widespread extinctions in the past but now a balance seems to have been established between man and nature. There is no evidence to suggest that the situation on the island has changed much since Balfour’s visit in 1880. There seem to have been no extinctions since Balfour’s time and certainly the suggestion that the island’s flora has been decimated by huge goat herds (Lucas et al. 1978 etc.) is totally unfounded. However, proposed development on the island could see the situation deteriorate very rapidly.

Organizations present on the island:

Environmental Protection Authority (EPA):

The EPA is a branch of Yemen’s Ministry of Water and Environment (MOWE) and has been present on the island since 1996.  Along with the Socotra Conservation and Development Program (SCDP), it monitors the state of Socotra’s environment and wildlife and regulates the ongoing process of development.  In this it follows the guidelines set down by the Zoning Plan/Presidential Decree no. 275 of 2000.

Socotra Conservation and Development Program (SCDP):

The SCDP is a UNDP, Government of Italy sponsored program currently responsible for the monitoring and regulation of the islands’ conservation and development.  Along with the EPA, it has established the protected areas of Homhil, Dhi Hamri, Detwah and Skand, and through its web of extension officers, is in constant contact with the island’s communities.  The current phase of the SCDP was completed at the end of 2007.

The Socotra Conservation Fund (SCF):

SCF is an NGO registered in Yemen and the UK  on a project by project basis.  The SCF was incorporated in the UK in 2002 and formally registered as an NGO in Yemen in 2003.  It is currently administrated by the staff of EPA/SCDP, but will soon be independent.

The Socotra Ecotourism Society (SES):

SES is an NGO founded to promote responsible and sustainable tourism on Socotra.  It is currently staffed in part by EPA/SCDP employees, but will soon be independent.

The Socotra Women’s Development Association (SWDA):

Founded and initially funded by SCF, the women’s association sells a wide variety of locally made handicrafts and offers opportunities for female tourists to meet with local Socotri women in a relaxed environment.

Socotra’s Culture and Heritage Association:

Founded by local poets and intellectuals, the Culture and Heritage Association aims to document traditional Socotri practices (including poetry, games, ceremonies etc.) and then help preserve the knowledge of these vital elements of Socotri culture.

The Protected Areas Associations:

Both Homhil and Dhi Hamri – two of the current four protected areas – have associations that coordinate local development and conservation efforts and function as important intermediaries between the local populations and SCDP/EPA.

The Local Council:

Composed of 18 elected members and an appointed president, the local council represents the Yemeni’s governments attempt to implement a nationwide policy of decentralization.  Together with the EPA/SCDP, the local council coordinates and implements development efforts on the island and coordinates the work of the various ministries on Socotra.

Socotra – the Island of Happiness

Socotra is about 120 by 40 km and covers an area of 3625 km². It is composed of a basement complex of igneous and metamorphic rocks of Pre-Cambrian age overlain by sedimentary rocks, mainly limestone and sandstone. Topographically it can be divided into three main zones. The coastal plains vary considerably in width, up to about 5 km. A limestone plateau extends across most of the island, averaging 300-700 m in altitude.

Diversity of Flora and Fauna:

Biologically, the Socotran Archipelago is well-known for its assemblage of endemic and unusual species. There are 850 recorded plant species, of which approximately 230 to 260 (about 30 percent) are endemic. There are also ten endemic genera: Ankalanthus, Ballochia, Trichocalyx, Duvaliandra, Socotranthus, Haya, Lachnocapsa, Dendrosicyos, Placoda, and Nirarathamnos; and one near-endemic family (Dirachmaceae). Some of the plants on Socotra represent the last surviving members of their genus. The limestone plateau and the Hagghier Mountains are the richest areas for endemic plant species, but endemics are found throughout the island in every type of vegetation. Due to habitat fragmentation and degradation, several endemic plant species are endangered.

The Distribution of Population:

The population of the Island are distributed between its distant parts, there are cavemen in mountainous areas who work in pasturing. The coastal population predominantly work in fishing and pasturing whilst the inner valleys inhabitants exercise pasturing and plantation of palm trees. The population of Socotra is estimated at 80,000-100,000 people.

The Climate:

Mean average temperatures range from 27º to 37ºC maximum and 17º to 26ºC minimum along the coastal plain. It is substantially cooler in the Hagghier Mountains. In June the temperature reaches its extreme and falls during January and February. The humidity average ranges between less than 55% in August to more than 70% during January. The Island is subjected to sharp southern westerly winds during the summer months ( June, July, August) whose speed decreases gradually during September till they end at the beginning of October and the average speed of winds during summer ranges between 13-18km/h.The effect of October and the average  speed of wind differs between the extremities of the island .

On the island four types of relief can be found:

The mountains: The most important is the mountainous range of Hajhar Mountains which are located at the eastern part of the island along Arida Bay, overlooking the island of capital Hadiboo and extending north easterly to south westerly at a distance of 25 km. The highest peak is Dawkam with 1630 m above the sea level. The central plateau: It occupies most of the island area and is parted by Wadi Tatrat (Tatrat valley) into two parts: the eastern and the western plateau. Coastal plains: The coastal plains are situated in the north and south of the island while there are no plains in the east or west of the island due to the extension of drifts to the coast. The northern coastal plain is named Hadiboo plain and the southern Nawjad plain by the island inhabitants.

The wadis (valleys): The plains are interspersed by many valleys that run some in the northern part and some in the southern part of the island. The most important is Azroo valley which intersects the island from north to south in addition to the valleys springing out from the Hajhar Mountains which are characterized for their running water all along the year.

The Wonder Land of Socotra, Yemen

Harf Zimmermann

Rare dragon’s blood trees, found only on the island, which can grow for 300 years.

By ALAN BURDICK

Published: March 25, 2007

The road to the forest of frankincense trees, on the Yemeni island of Socotra, is a rough one. From the passenger seat of a battered Toyota Land Cruiser, it looked like pure rock pile, on and on, up, down, over. Ahmed Said, my driver and guide, wrestled the wheel like a man engaged, surely and calmly, in a struggle to the death. When at last, after 90 minutes, he stopped and got out, we had traveled perhaps no more than five miles.

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Yemen’s Galapagos

We stood on a rise overlooking a riverbed rushing with water. The ground underfoot was a rubble of granite boulders and chunks of sharp limestone karst. Small trees — short and gnarled, resembling mesquite — surrounded us. Ahmed approached one and pointed to an amber drop of sap oozing from its trunk: the essence of frankincense. Until that moment I’d had no clear idea what exactly frankincense was; nor that it derives from the sap of a tree; nor that, as Ahmed explained, Socotra is home to nine species of the tree, all unique to the island. I caught the drop of sap on my finger and inhaled a sharp, sweet fragrance; then I put it to my tongue. The torture of the drive was forgotten, and for the briefest moment, under the hot Yemeni sun, I tasted Christmas.

Situated 250 miles off the coast of Yemen, Socotra is the largest member of an archipelago of the same name, a four-island ellipsis that trails off the Horn of Africa into the Gulf of Aden. A mix of ancient granite massifs, limestone cliffs and red sandstone plateaus, the island brings to mind the tablelands of Arizona, if Arizona were no bigger than New York’s Long Island and surrounded by a sparkling turquoise sea.

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Some 250 million years or more ago, when all the planet’s major landmasses were joined and most major life-forms were just a gleam in some evolutionary eye, Socotra already stood as an island apart. Ever since, it has been gathering birds, seeds and insects off the winds and cultivating one of the world’s most unusual collections of organisms. In addition to frankincense, Socotra is home to myrrh trees and several rare birds. Its marine life is a unique hybrid of species from the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. In the 1990s, a team of United Nations biologists conducted a survey of the archipelago’s flora and fauna. They counted nearly 700 endemic species, found nowhere else on earth; only Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands have more impressive numbers.

Lately Socotra has begun to attract a new and entirely foreign species — tourists. A modest airport went up in 1999. (Before then, the island could be reached only by cargo ship; from May to September, when monsoon winds whip up the sea, it could be cut off entirely.) That year, 140 travelers visited. The annual figure now exceeds 2,500: a paltry number compared with, say, the Galapagos, but on an island with only four hotels, two gas stations and a handful of flush toilets, it’s a veritable flood.

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They — I should say “we” — constitute an experiment. Encouraged by a United Nations development plan, Socotra has opted to avoid mass tourism: no beachfront resorts; instead, small, locally owned hotels and beachfront campsites. The prize is that rarest of tourists, eco-tourists: those who know the little known and reach the hard to reach, who will come eager to see the Socotra warbler, the loggerhead turtle, the dragon’s blood tree — anything, please, but their own reflection.

Riding with Ahmed, it was immediately evident that, though the island is small in size, it cannot possibly be seen without a hired driver and guide, for the simple reason that there are few proper roads, fewer road signs and no road maps.

The first paved roads were built by the Yemeni government only two years ago: wide, open scabs on the landscape that stretch across the island yet see virtually no traffic. The new roads, it turned out, were a sore spot with Ahmed and the United Nations Socotra Archipelago Conservation and Development Programme. “The experience is so different if you spend 45 minutes on a road versus three or four hours,” Paul Scholte, the program’s technical adviser in Sana, Yemen’s capital, said to me. “The whole perception of the island changes due to the road.” Then there was the matter of placement. Only at the last minute did the S.C.D.P. manage to convince the government not to send the road through a stretch of coastline designated as a nature preserve. It’s fair to say that Socotra’s future may be read in the lines of its roads: how many, how wide, where they lead and who is encouraged to travel on them.

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Ahmed took me to the beach that would have been paved over: shimmering blue water, powdery white sand and not a soul in sight. A ghost crab, pure white, with just its pin-stalk eyes peeking above the water like twin periscopes, drifted by on a current in the shallows. I watched it watch me and then bury itself in the sandy floor.

According to Scholte, roughly half of Socotra’s tourists are Italians, who seem mainly interested in the beaches: “Italians go because it’s new, it’s cheap, but not because it’s special.” The French and Germans, in contrast, go for special: they come to hike, visit the island’s nature preserves, maybe rent camels and spend several days trekking as a group across the Haghier mountain range at the center of the island.

As for Americans, well, there weren’t many. I could understand: a conservative Arab country hardly seems like a good first choice for a vacation, much less the country where, in 2000, Al Qaeda forces bombed the U.S.S. Cole; where, in 2006, tribesmen kidnapped a group of French tourists; and where (according to my guidebook) a Kalashnikov can be had for only a little over $100. But whatever Yemen’s troubles, Socotra is far removed from them. Everyone I met was garrulous and open, and seemed genuinely excited, at least for the moment, at the prospect of foreign visitors.

Socotra Island: you have to see it to believe it
We covered some otherwordly places before (see, for example, Bolivian Salt Lake, or The Richat Structure), but this island simply blows away any notion about what is considered "normal" for a landscape on Earth.

(images credit: Jan Vandorpe, socotra)
Imagine waking up on the Socotra Island and taking a good look around you (let’s say your buddies pulled a prank on you and delivered you there, and lets also assume that you don’t have any hangover from abuse of any substances). After a yelp of disbelief, you’d be inclined to think you were transported to another planet – or traveled to another era of Earth’s history.
The second would be closer to the truth for this island, which is part of a group of 4 islands, has been geographically isolated from mainland Africa for the last 6 or 7 million years. Like the Galapagos Islands, this island is teeming with 700 extremely rare species of flora and fauna, a full 1/3 of which are endemic, i.e. found nowhere else on Earth.

(images credit: dianadrz, Irina Travina)

(image credit: socotra)
The climate is harsh, hot and dry, and yet – the most amazing plant life thrives there. Situated in the Indian Ocean 250 km from Somalia and 340 km from Yemen, the wide sandy beaches rise to limestone plateaus full of caves (some 7 kilometers in length) and mountains up to 1525 meters high.

(image credit: Marco Pavan)
The name Socotra is derived from a Sanscrit name, meaning "The Island of Bliss"… Is it the beaches? The isolation and quiet? or the strange and crazy botanical allure?
Alien-looking plants: H. P. Lovecraft’s secret inspiration?
Was the famous Chtulhu myths creator aware of these forbidding mountains with their hauntingly weird flora (think of plant mutations from his "The Color out of Space") ? We almost tempted to call Socotra the other "Mountains of Madness" – the trees and plants of this island were preserved thru the long geological isolation, some varieties being 20 million years old
We begin with the dracena cinnibaris or Dragon’s Blood Tree, the source of valuable resin for varnishes, dyes, and "cure-all" medicine; also (predictably) used in medieval ritual magic and alchemy –

(image credit: Christian Besnier)
The branches spread out into the sky and from below appear to hover over the landscape like so many flying saucers… and from above they have a distinct mushroom look:

(image credit: Jan Vandorpe)

(image credit: dianadrz)
There is also the Desert Rose (adenium obesium) which looks like nothing so much as a blooming elephant leg:

(images credit: Jan Vandorpe)

(image credit: Denis Romanov)
Dorstenia gigas – apparently does not require any soil and sinks roots straight into the bare rock:


(images credit: Jan Vandorpe)
It also has a distinct personality and likes to smile for the camera:

(image credit: Tomas van Houtryve)
Somewhat similar to the weird Dorstenia gigas, is this "bucha" vegetable, found as far north as Croatia. I hope it’s not pregnant with anything malignant inside this sack. John Wyndham (with his "The Day of the Triffids") would’ve loved it:

(image credit: Damir)
Also found in Socotra’s landscape is the ever-strange and extremely rare Cucumber Tree (dendrosicyos socotranum) – and yes, it’s related to what’s sitting in a pickle jar in your fridge:

(image credit: Jan Vandorpe)
Getting around can be a challenge, as there are almost no roads
Despite the fact that this island has around 40,000 inhabitants, the Yemeni govenment put in the first roads just 2 years ago – after negotiations with UNESCO, which has declared this island a World Natural Heritage Site. I would prefer a camel ride to what is bound to be a bumpy and slow 4×4 ride… It is a quiet and peaceful enclave in an otherwise troubled world. If you decide to visit there, you can forget about beachfront hotels and restaurants; this island is geared towards eco-tourism and sustaining the local economy and way of life.

(images credit: Adele Obice, Marco Pavan, Denis Romanov)

This island is a birder’s paradise as well, with 140 different species of birds; 10 of which are not found anywhere else in the world. A unique Socotra warbler, sunbird, starling, bunting, sparrow and cisticola are among the ones found here. There are also Socotra Cormorants:

(images credit: Magellan Tours, Rafeek Manchayil)
Want to see some fairy-tale (and possibly haunted) shipwrecks? There are diving tours available… Hopefully some IMAX crew would film it in all its glory one day.

(image credit: socotra)
To give you a glimpse of Socotra’s and Yemen’s in general totally unique architecture, check out this place located on the mainland:
Al Hajarah, Yemen – Walled city in the mist
Computer game designers take note – this mysterious city in the foggy Yemen’s Haraz Mountains can surely fire up imagination of anybody who decides to explore it:

(image credit: Jan Vandorpe)

(image credit: Bellosta)

(image credit: Michaela Diener)
Dune? Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique? Pack your bags, for this is on our good old planet Earth, no interstellar visa required.

(image credit: socotra)

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