Socotra: Yemen’s secret Garden of Eden

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Socotra, the sand dunes reach down to the sea

Text & photos by Alessandro Gandolfi/Parallelozero/TCS

Like a modern-day Garden of Eden, the island of Socotra is a secret world filled with trees of knowledge and life – unique species with mythical names such as Dragon’s Blood or Desert Rose. This botanical gem south of Yemen was isolated for thousands of years in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and powerful monsoons still make it inaccessible for half the year. Virgin and unexplored, it is slowly opening up to tourism and investment, both of which have arrived since Socotra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For now, Yemen is doing its best to preserve the island’s uniqueness, and botanists who visit are subjected to rigorous controls to prevent them exporting the seeds of these fabulous plants. God’s garden is here, and here it must remain!

Socotra is a botanist’s paradise. It has a unique species of aloe known for its medicinal properties, and the local incense has been traded since the time of the ancient Greeks. It has the stocky “Socotra Desert Rose” (Adenium obesum sokotranum), the spongy trunk of which contains a poison that hunters use to coat their arrows. And its most famous plant, the “Dragon’s Blood Tree” (Dracaena cinnabari), is in the shape of an umbrella, and its red sap is used as a natural dye and a powerful antiseptic. All these delights are found here and nowhere else.

Socotra, a Desert Rose (Adenium obesum)

Welcome to the “Arabic Galapagos”, a place Charles Darwin would certainly have visited had he only known of its existence. This elongated island, one third the size of Jamaica, sits strategically between the Arabian Peninsula, India and Africa, but became detached from the mainland six million years ago and has since lived in absolute biological isolation.

Socotra, a pod of dolphins

The sea hasn’t covered this land for at least one hundred million years, and this is one reason UNESCO listed it as a World Natural Heritage Site in 2008. Socotra is a real-life “Jurassic park”, with valleys and hillsides that are home to animal and plant species unknown anywhere else on Earth. Its cultural isolation is extraordinary too: shepherds and fishermen have lived in harmony with their environment here for millennia, and developed into a self-sufficient people who speak a unique language and still heal themselves using traditional local herbs.

Professor Francisco Raimondo Maria, director of the Botanical Gardens in Palermo, Italy, is just one of many botanists who are drawn to Socotra by its unique nature. “What we are most interested in is the potential global legacy of the vegetation, and the presence on the island of hundreds of endemic species,” he explains.

Socotra, the vibrant colours of a small stream on the island

On the terrace of their fonduk (guesthouse) in Hadibi – Socotra’s main village – Professor Raimondo and his colleagues have been classifying the seeds they collected on their 10-day field trip. “The local authorities want to protect the biodiversity here,” he says, looking concerned. “We fly back to Italy tomorrow and our export permits for these samples have still not arrived.”

The next day, the botanists do receive their export licences, but only at the final moment when their plane is already on the runway ready to depart. Italy has the distinction of bringing more tourists to Socotra than any other nation, however, and it also donates the most aid to local development projects, so perhaps it was for these reasons that their request was eventually successful.

For the rest of this article (Asian Geographic No.81 Issue 4/2011 ) and other stories, check out our past issues here or download a digital copy here

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