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The Alien landscape of Socotra

Socotra is the largest island of an archipelago with the same name and it sums up about 95% of the landmass of the archipelago. It lies some 240 kilometers (150 mi) east of the Horn of Africa and 380 kilometers (240 mi) south of the Arabian Peninsula.

The landscape of remote Socotra Island looks as if it comes from a sci-fi film but in fact has evolved to look so other-worldly as the’lost world’ island has been separated from mainland Africa for between six and seven million years. It is one of the most remote places on Earth of continental origin (not volcanic) and was once part of the super continent of Gondwana, which detached during the Miocene.

The island’s harsh environment includes wide sandy beaches, limestone caves and towering mountains, but is for the most part very hot and dry leading to the distinctive appearance of its plants.
Socotra is considered the jewel of biodiversity in the Arabian Sea. In the 1990’s, 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, New Caledonia, and the Galapagos Islands have more impressive numbers.

The bottle tree, Adenium sokotranum, also grows on the Arabian and African mainlands , but there its much smaller than on Socotra. Its trunk stores water, and it grows in these weird and wonderful shapes to anchor itself into the rocks.

It is, however, another endemic tree, the dragon’s blood, that’s come to symbolize Socotra, its distinctive shape even depicted on Yemen’s 20-rial coin. A relative of the common houseplants of the genus Dracaena, it grows on the plateaus and mountains over much of the island. The most extensive dragon’s blood forests are found on Firmihin.
Many plants here rely on mists for water. Some of Socotra’s rarest endemics grow on steep cliffs in the mountains and around the island’s perimeter, where they soak up moisture that collects when mist condenses on rocks. Those upturned dragon’s blood branches are in fact an evolutionary adaptation to gather precious moisture from mist in the air.

As well as the funky flora, the island is home to 140 species of birds, 10 of which can only be found on the Socotra, such as the Socotra starling, sunbird, bunting, sparrow and golden-winged grosbeak.
Many of the native species are now endangered as they have been hunted by non-native feral cats.
Interestingly there are no amphibians native to the island and only one native mammal – the bat – but 90 per cent of reptiles are endemic to Socotra, including rare skinks, legless lizards and one species of chameleon.
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all tapped the treasures of Socotra’s natural world: aromatic resins such as frankincense, medicinal aloe extract, and the dark red sap of the dragon’s blood tree, used for healing and as an artist’s color. Adventurers came to harvest the island’s wealth, despite stories that it was guarded by giant snakes living in its caves. The Queen of Sheba, Alexander the Great, and Marco Polo were among those who coveted Socotra’s riches

Because the island belongs to Yemen, a country with very strict regulations regarding travel, Socotra draws very few tourists. Even the most adventurous travelers are deterred by the country’s association with radical Islam.
Socotra people have practiced conservation through their traditions and this one of the last places on Earth where we can actually still protect a unique island environment.

Ioana Grecu’s Blog

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