Living evolutionary history

By | Travel
Dragon's Blood tree credit@Rod Waddington via flickr.com

Located in the Indian Ocean, near the Gulf of Aden, is a hidden place to discover. Socotra is a small archipelago of four islands, some 250 miles off the coast of Yemen. The largest of these four islands, all of which are part of Yemen, goes by the same name and is home to some of the most interesting looking plants, which may only be found there. This magnificent island is teeming with over 800 rare species of plants, of which more than a third are endemic. Besides its rare flora, the island also showcases a large number of endemic reptiles, most of which may solely be found on Socotra. With over 250 species of reef-building corals, over 700 species of coastal fish and 300 species of crab, lobster and shrimp, the island’s marine life is equally diverse.

Socotra beach credit@Martin Sojka via flickr.com

Socotra beach credit@Martin Sojka via flickr.com

Socotra’s one-of-a-kind ecosystem is thanks to the island’s geographical position. It has been an island for millions of years, which allowed the island to stage its own evolutionary process. Some 250 million years ago, when all the planet’s landmasses were joined together, enabling most major life forms to roam around freely, Socotra stood apart as an island. This isolation from other continental plates meant that its endemic flora and fauna were unable to spread to the mainland and consequently other parts of the world.

Some of the island’s most striking examples of plants include; the Dragon’s Blood tree, the giant Succulent tree, the Cucumber tree or the Socotran pomegranate. The Dragon’s Blood tree is probably also the island’s most iconic tree. In ancient times, the umbrella-shaped tree’s red sap was believed to be dragon’s blood (hence the name) and was sought after as medicine and dye and is still used as paint today.

Fisherman credit@HopeHill via flickr.com

Fisherman credit@HopeHill via flickr.com

What makes this place even more unique and distinguishes this island from other places boasting such rare biodiversity, like the Galapagos Islands, is that Socotra is inhabited and has been for more than 2000 years. The indigenous inhabitants have found remarkable ways to live in such a fascinating place of immense ecological value. Over the centuries, they have gained a thorough knowledge of the flora and fauna and have become experts in protecting the island’s resources to balance its economy. Islanders have found a sustainable way to provide livestock fodder, fuel, building materials, foods, gums and resins. Plant extracts are used in medicines and for cosmetic reasons, such as tanning and hygiene preparations, as well as dying. As Socotra’s inhabitants are mainly supported by the island’s vegetation; fishing, animal husbandry and the cultivation of dates are still the primary sources of their livelihood.

Socotra fishing village credit@Gerry & Bonni via flickr.com

Socotra fishing village credit@Gerry & Bonni via flickr.com

In recognition of this high diversity and endemism in plants, Socotra was declared a WWF Global 200 Eco-region; a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve. Thanks to its isolated location, the archipelago is one of the best-preserved semi-tropical islands worldwide, with the integrity of its biodiversity almost intact. In order to strengthen the conversation process even further, a UNDP programme was launched to provide for the health, education, agriculture and local government of the islands. The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) also supports Socotra, which is responsible for the environmental management and wildlife conservation in Yemen. The Socotra branch of the EPA has designed a Nature-Based Tourism Development Program, which carries out a range of projects with the objective to promote eco-tourism on one hand and to discuss ways the local population may best benefit from the island’s biodiversity on the other. Among others, training sessions for Socotri tourist guides or workshops on how to best generate income from this newly emerging industry are on offer.

Given the archipelago’s unique history and ecosystem, Socotra can be sure to attract large numbers of visitors, amazed by what the island has to offer, in the future.

In what other ways may the local community benefit from such an isolated yet unique place?

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