I consider myself to be among the lucky ones; I visited Socotra while it still was a near pristine paradise.
It is the stuff fairy tales and vivid imaginations are made of but instead of filling books and movies, they exist right here in a remote island in the Indian Ocean. Dragon’s blood trees, bottle trees, hissing chameleons, single species genus, limestone caves and rocky beaches. Far from the mainland, the flora and fauna on this archipelago evolved in isolation over hundreds of thousands of years resulting in a high level of endemicity. Socotra rightly deserves its nickname “The Galapagos of the Indian Ocean” and its designation as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Three days ago, the BBC shared an article about Socotra titled “Socotra, the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, becomes a disaster zone” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-44235159). The title alone made my heart sink. This tiny island, 3,796 km2 in area filled with strange and beautiful creatures found nowhere else on Earth, did not escape human warmongering or natural disasters.
In 2008, my mother and I visited Yemen mainland and Socotra. It gave me the rare opportunity to see and experience how unique this place is. The Socotra sunbird and Socotra sparrow were among many endemic species spotted during this trip. A chance encounter with a birding group got us to small islets inhabited exclusively by pelagic bird species. Boobies on rock ledges, gannets dive-bombing into the sea, cormorants drying their wings are just a small selection of the feast of birding we experienced that day. While the endemic birds are enough to excite the least ardent birder, the average tourist would be transported to another world at the sight of the dragon’s blood trees. A wide valley populated on both sides with trees shaped like no other you’ve ever seen, oozing a deep red resin giving it an eerie blood-like air. Although I didn’t get to see the critically endangered and endemic dragon’s blood tree gecko, I’m sure some of them saw me!
We spent a week on Yemen mainland where we visited many of the most significant, unique cultural highlights which included the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site-the old city of Sana’a. The delicately adorned buildings with their white-trimmings and their stained glass windows were magnificent. It is thought that a good part of these historic establishments were destroyed during the civil war, a tragedy for what is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Even before the armed assault on the civilians and natural treasure of the country, the wildlife of Yemen was under pressure from other causes. Goats and khat are two pieces of a large puzzle of causes which threaten the biodiversity of the country. Goats have overrun most of the island of Socotra, feeding indiscriminately on rare plants which are found nowhere else on Earth. Large herds of goats roam unchecked across the Yemeni mainland, grazing even in protected areas, threatening the survival of wild herbivores like gazelles and ibex. Khat* is cultivated widely around Yemen being the crop of choice for most farmers as it provides a high income. Precious water is used to irrigate khat fields leaving food crops lacking water and this crop is increasingly chosen for cultivation fuelling the food crisis.
I am extremely thankful to have been among the lucky ones to see this fascinating place before the war and cyclones began to ravage heritage sites, the wonderful people, their culture and their unique wilderness. Anyone visiting Socotra today will only see a shadow of its former self.
*Khat: a plant used in a similar way that betel nut is used in Asia. Both are chewed to experience a buzz although in the case of Khat, it is classified as a drug and considered illegal in many countries.