Socotra’s biodiversity is like an ancient book of beautiful, precious texts, of which only one copy remains, but is fragile to the softest touch…Dr. Kay Van Damme (Honorary Chair, FoS)
Through tales, myths and legends
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Millions and millions of years ago the Socotra archipelago started to break apart from the Arabian Peninsula and from the African Continent. It seems that at least 18 million years ago the archipelago was already strongly isolated. But the theories are varied. Together with Madagascar, Socotra is considered among the most ancient continental islands in the world. Mysteries and legends have always shrouded this ancient land, placed only a few hundred miles from the coastlines of Africa and Arabia. Socotra is the biggest island in the archipelago and the largest island of Arabia.
Socotra is a magical place, a botanical and zoological sanctuary, with a seemingly extra-terrestrial look, full of mysteries and legends belonging to ancient civilizations. It is an open-air insular laboratory of nature in the middle of the ocean, where the local biota follows the natural rhythm of life. There are many traces of ancient civilizations and others having yet no recognized origin.
In The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea dating from the first century B.C. Socotra is mentioned as a multi-ethnic emporium. Virgil likely called it Panchaia, linked to the Phoenix myth, the Greeks Dioscorida; the ancient people knew it as the land of the Phoenix, to the Portuguese it was known as Zocotora. Dante also mentioned it in his Divine Comedy alluding to the Phoenix bird’s refuge: “ the Arabic phoenix feeding on incense and myrrh…” . Stradivarius’ violin was said to be lined inside with resin coming from Dracaena cinnabari or Dragon blood tree from Socotra. Moravia wanted to go there before dying and that was his last journey, while Pasolini, enchanted too, did not succeed in going there, unfortunately. Today it is known as Socotra or Soqotra, and it belongs to the Republic of Yemen.
Thanks to its extraordinary biodiversity, Socotra Island, apart from being among the few and rare sites in the world to be a Man and Biosphere (MAB) reserve (2003), was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2008. Both fauna and flora have a high percentage of rare and endemic elements. As regards vascular plants, they are well known and exhaustive data is available. In fact, plant species are about 800 and, among these, about 37% are endemic. They are distributed in 443 genera, (15 of which are endemic); and belong to 114 botanic families. Some of these endemics are really peculiar and unique in the world. This is the case with the Cucumber Tree (Dendrosicyos soqotranus) or a succulent Moraceae (Dorstenia gigas). A native extraordinary little tree, sometimes only a shrub, is a close relative, perhaps the ancestor of the pomegranate (Punica granatum) and received the evocative scientific name Punica protopunica. The Palermo Botanic Garden hosts a specimen of this species, perhaps the only one cultivated outside this restricted range on the other hand. A genus rich of species outside the island, widely cultivated for ornamental purposes and the mother plant of all begonias currently in horticulture, is the beautiful, very rare and threatened Begonia socotrana. Some genera such as Boswellia (frankincense trees) and Commiphora include famous representatives having cultural and economic importance, producing incense and myrrh. Commiphora myrrha, which produces the true (biblical) “myrrh”, does not occur on the Archipelago, however the species on Socotra produce other varieties of Commiphora resin related to myrrh, which looks similar and has similar uses and amazing scents. Other plants producing famous resins are aloe (Aloe perryi) and one Dragon’s Blood Tree species (Dracaena cinnabari), a beautiful umbrella-shaped plant; engraving the trunk of the latter the red resin, or dragon blood is obtained. A related species, originating in the Canary Islands (Dracaena draco), has been cultivated in some gardens of Palermo since the early nineteenth century. The succulent Adenium obesum subsp. sokotranum is frequent and characteristic, as well as the monumental tamarind trees (Tamarindus indica) imported during ancient times, growing in the vicinities of small villages, often meeting place of indigenous communities and favourite places of children playing.
Only partial data is available about fauna and investigations by different groups of scientists are in progress. Apart from the few mammals such as an endemic bat species, several endemic species of birds and reptiles are known among the vertebrates; the invertebrate fauna is rich in endemic genera and species, only partly discovered and described recently. The marine fauna is rich and diverse with more than 230 species of corals, 730 species of fish and more than 300 species of molluscs and crustaceans, among which crabs, shrimps and lobsters.
Soqotri is one of the Modern South Arabian Languages (MSAL): Mehri, Soqotri, Śḥerɛ̄t, Ḥarsūsi, Hobyōt and Baṭḥari. These are unwritten Semitic languages spoken by minority populations in south-east Yemen, southern Oman and the fringes of southern and eastern Saudi Arabia. The name “Modern South Arabian” is somewhat confusing, as these unwritten languages are neither “modern” nor comprehensible to an Arabic speaker. They are called “Modern South Arabian” languages (henceforth referred to as MSAL) to differentiate them from “Old South Arabian”, which refers to the four related languages which were written in the Ancient South Arabian script and are now extinct. The MSAL belong to the South Semitic branch of the Semitic language family, which also includes Ethiopian Semitic. This is distinguished from the Central Semitic branch, which includes the more widely known Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew. The MSAL are believed to be the remnants of a pre-Arabic substratum that once stretched over the whole of southern Arabia, and across the Red Sea, into the highlands and littoral of East Africa. The areas in which the MSAL are still spoken are the only regions within the Arabian Peninsula to have retained the Semitic languages spoken prior to the spread of Islam and subsequent Arabisation of the Peninsula. In all other communities, Arabic appears to have superseded the original languages.
Crossroads, emporium and refuge
Aristotle allegedly recommended Alexander the Great to conquer the island in order to control the aloe trade. Since ancient times, the island was known for the excellent qualities of aloe, as well as incense and dragon’s blood – the red resin considered till today a panacea obtained from the symbolic tree of the island, dracaena (Dracaena cinnabari) and known as the dragon blood tree. Since antiquity, dragon’s blood was used for many purposes: lacquering wood, in medicine, in cosmetics and in dyes; Romans may have appreciated it to stain fabric. Therefore, there was a real trade of aloe, dragon’s blood, incense and myrrh from Socotra: it started from the coasts of Arabia Felix, today’s Yemen, and then was carried to the Mediterranean stores by desert caravans.
In the sixteenth century the Portuguese occupied Socotra. Vasco de Gama sailed the surrounding seas several times but he never landed there; Alfonso de Albuquerque was the first explorer to reach it in 1507. In the nineteenth century the British were present in Socotra while it belonged to South Yemen, and they briefly leased it until 1967, when the island became part of People’s Republic of South Yemen. But the modern history of Socotra begins in 1990 when, after centuries, the unification of the two Yemens (Northern Yemen Democratic Republic and Southern Yemen Democratic Republic) took place. Since ancient times, Socotra has always been part of the famous Arabia Felix.
Socotra’s complete history is still to be written and researched. There are ancient documents on the subject in Greek, Latin, Syrian, Aramaic, Arabic, Portuguese, English, French, Chinese and other sources, some of which are written in the unique caves of Socotra.
Just as Sicily was the crossroad and the emporium of the Mediterranean Sea since ancient times, Socotra was the crossroad and the emporium between the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean for centuries. Its economically strategic position relative to Africa, Arabia and Asia allowed important trade connections with Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Arabia Felix, but also as well for the routes starting from the Mediterranean Sea towards India.
Climate – Economy – Eco tourism
Socotra is part of the Archipelago to which it gave its name, together with three smaller islands it stretches over a territory of 3,600 km2 where about 80,000 inhabitants live. Among the indigenous Soqotri, many are livestock breeders and fishermen, partly nomadic. Its highest mountains, the Hagher Mountains, reach up to 1,540 m and they are the source of wealth and the guardians of its secrets; from them emerge the springs, bringing fertility throughout the mountains and feeding many wadis in the eastern part of the island. Humidity and fog coming from the sea are trapped in the high mountains. From May to September the great monsoon hits the Socotra archipelago causing rainfalls and very strong winds. Because of the strong monsoon winds blowing on its islands, the Socotra archipelago is often inaccessible from May to September, preserving its isolation trough the centuries.
The powerful strength of nature dominating without hindrance from its coasts to its mountains allowed the development of an environment and a biodiversity unique in the world.
Its inhabitants live mainly on building, trade, animal husbandry, fishing and until a few years ago, eco tourism. Until several decades ago they have always lived their lives in a certain balance with the island’s natural resources following traditional rules favouring and protecting the survival of Socotra’s natural environment. Activities for an eco-sustainable tourism started in the 1990’s. Visits and explorations to the island suddenly brought it in to the limelight. The limited adventurous eco tourism, not mass tourism, allowed Socotra at the time to remain relatively unspoiled in comparison to many other islands in the world. It is an ideal place for environmentally friendly investments such as eco tourism, avoiding the mistakes made in the Galapagos or in Madagascar or in other biodiversity hotspots on our planet, leading to negative ecological impacts. In 2008/2010 Socotra opened itself up even more to the world. Tourists were limited, with a spike of 5,000 tourists in 2010 and currently much less of course, but enough to encourage its inhabitants to devote themselves to new activities without destroying its habitat and its natural treasures, and raising natural awareness. Above all, the Soqotri are conscious of the value of their unique land and environment.
Socotra has always been inaccessible due to the strong winds hitting its coasts, thus succeeding in preserving temporary isolation along the centuries. In 1898 the Royal Botanical Garden of Edinburgh organized the first scientific exploration and suddenly the scientific world discovered Socotra.
Very few researchers spoke of Socotra until the 1980s, except for occasional archaeological and scientific expeditions. In the 1990s Socotra came back in the limelight with the unification of the two Yemens and since then it was a popular destination for researchers, explorers, travellers and scientists from all over the world.
From March 2015 Socotra gets isolated due the ongoing conflict in Yemen and in the region, leaving most access to the island largely denied to scientists, tourists and foreigners in general. Since the island mostly consists of a National Park with a very fragile ecosystem, its biodiversity value should be closely protected. Unfortunately, since 2015 only a few scientists, experts and researchers succeeded in getting to it. In the past years, recently in 2018, terrible cyclones hit and battered the island damaging the local communities as well as its natural heritage.
Since the end of 1990’s, the Directorate General for Development Cooperation (DGCS), under the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with UNDP and the Yemeni central government, supported the preparation of the Master Plan and a Zoning Plan of the island. The plans were elaborated with the participation of the universities of Rome (Sapienza), Pavia and Venice. These efforts, combining expertise from several institutes in Germany, Belgium, UK, and Yemen among others, led to the adoption of the Socotra Conservation Zoning Plan (Pres. Decree n° 275) allowing the development and implementation of conservation and protection measures in the archipelago’s different zones (General Use Zones, Resource Use Reserves, National Park and Nature Sanctuaries).
For more information on the Zoning Plan please see this link.
The Yemeni government made Socotra its banner to raise ecological awareness in the country and to undertake a serious politics of environmental protection. From the late 1990s to now, several globally known nature conservation and sustainable development organisations have been active on Socotra, such as UNDP, UNEP, GEF and GIZ, in parallel to development projects funded by donor countries including Italy, France and Czech Republic.
For a while the island resembled an interactive workshop where researchers and scientists from all over the world met and worked together with local communities and local conservationists to stimulate sustainability and nature conservation. Up to 2014, development, sustainability, conservation, eco tourism and research appeared to co-exist in an apparently healthy and serene equilibrium on Socotra among the many obstacles and difficulties, through perseverance and passion. In a more recent time of political turmoil in Yemen, efforts to help the survival and health of Socotra’s ecosystems and of the island’s unique culture, are important to raise awareness on, and several international donors and organisations have continued to support Socotra biodiversity and sustainable development in difficult circumstances. A recent new project by the British Council also focuses on Socotra’s tangible and intangible culture. Focusing on natural heritage, an ongoing UNEP-GEF-EPA project aims to protect the local biodiversity through an increase of well-managed protected areas, better sustainable land management and combating exotic species as well as increasing capacity building to deal with ongoing threats to the world heritage site. The past conservation efforts led to the declaration in 2003 of Socotra as a UNESCO Man and Biosphere reserve, and later to its inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List because of its exceptionally rich and distinct marine and terrestrial biodiversity. A unique biodiversity hotspot together with Galapagos, Canaries, Hawaii, Madagascar, New Zealand.
Socotra World Heritage
By inscribing Socotra on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2008, the World Heritage Committee recognized the Archipelago’s global importance for biodiversity conservation because of its exceptional level of biodiversity and endemism in many terrestrial and marine groups of organisms (data from 2008, see https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1263):
- Socotra is particularly important for its diversity of plants and has 825 plant species of which 307 (37%) are endemic.
- Socotra has high importance for bird species as underlined by the identification by Birdlife International of 22 Important Bird Areas on Socotra (note: updated now, see Porter & Suleiman, 2016).
- Socotra also supports globally significant populations of other land and sea birds, including a number of threatened species.
- Extremely high levels of endemism occur in Socotra’s reptiles (34 species, 90% endemism) and land snails (96 species, 95% endemism).
- The marine life of Socotra is also very diverse, with 253 species of reef-building corals, 730 species of coastal fish and 300 species of crab, lobster and shrimp, and well represented in the property’s marine areas.
At the time of inscription, the Committee not only recognised Socotra’s outstanding universal value, but also referred to requirements for its protection and management. The Committee highlighted the need to strengthen the legislative framework, and management capacity, in view of dealing with threats such as road-building, overgrazing and overharvesting of terrestrial and marine natural resources. The Committee also indicated that the impacts of potential threats like unsustainable tourism and invasive species on Socotra’s biodiversity need to be closely monitored and minimized.
At its most recent meeting (2018), the World Heritage Committee expressed its concern about the casualties and flash flooding caused by Cyclone Mekunu that hit the archipelago at the end of May 2018 and called on all UNESCO Member States to support emergency safeguarding measures, including through the UNESCO Heritage Emergency Fund. At the same time, the Committee also considered that uncontrolled developments, unsustainable use of natural resources, and the absence of adequate biosecurity measures to avoid the introduction of invasive alien species represent a potential danger to the outstanding universal value of the archipelago. The Committee therefore urged to halt any activity that may have a potential impact on the archipelago’s value and to refrain from allowing any further unsustainable development, until planned activities and projects have been submitted to UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, for review by IUCN.