Just off the south coast of Yemen near the entrance to the Red Sea, one of the most unusual places in the world has also been one of the most unspoiled – until recently.
Known as the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed archipelago of Socotra is famed for its endemic flora and fauna, which have, over time, adapted and thrived on its four islands. Surrounded by warm turquoise waters, Socotra is landscaped with rocky cliffs, white sand beaches, canyons and red sandstone tablelands, and is now home to about 60,000 people.
After centuries of relative isolation, however, the archipelago now faces an uncertain future as climate change and other threats imperil its unique forms of life.
“Socotra is a highly fragile landscape, and because it was relatively isolated for a long time, it did not experience extinction-related human impacts in the last 150 years, unlike most islands in the world,” says Kay Van Damme, a hydrobiologist at Ghent University.
Socotra’s biodiversity is a legacy of its unusual past. Once a part of Africa and Arabia when they were a single landmass, the archipelago separated millions of years ago and drifted to its current spot 380 kilometers south of the Arabian Peninsula and 240 kilometers east of the Horn of Africa. It brought with it plants and wildlife that are found nowhere else.
More than one-third of Socotra’s plant species are native to the island, as are 90 percent of its reptiles and 95 percent of its snails. One of its most famous species is the dragon blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), so named for its red sap that has been prized for its medicinal properties since the Roman Empire. Its thick trunk ringed by horizontal limbs resembles an umbrella – a striking architecture developed to draw in precipitation from fog and mist.
Other natural treasures include native frankincense and bottle-shaped trees such as the desert rose (Adenium obesum socotranum), which adapted to survive on rocky ground and clifftops through storing water in its trunk. Socotra also has biologically rich marine ecosystems and provides a roosting spot for land and sea birds, including the migratory Egyptian vulture, the Socotra cormorant and the endemic Socotra sunbird.
In recent decades, however, the archipelago has become less secluded and experienced many disruptive changes. An airstrip constructed in 1999 has brought in tourists and sparked a small eco-tourism industry. Recently arrived invasive species include the red palm weevil. Believed to have been imported from Yemen, the voracious pest is endangering the local date palm economy. Meanwhile, climate change has also begun to alter the islands’ delicate ecosystems.
In consequence, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now lists Socotra as a World Heritage site of significant concern.
“The Socotra Archipelago is facing a multitude of threats, and many of them stem from fast-paced human activities,” Peter Shadie, senior adviser on World Heritage at IUCN, said in 2018 about the islands’ vulnerable landscapes. “Threats to Socotra identified in recent years include uncontrolled development, unsustainable use of natural resources, climate change, plastic pollution and the absence of adequate biosecurity measures to avoid the introduction of invasive alien species.”
“I have been going to Socotra for over 20 years and have seen for myself the changes accelerated by climate change,” says Van Damme. “Where there were once trees, there are now nearly none, such as in Homhil, a nature sanctuary in the east of Socotra.”
Indeed, researchers at Mendel University (where Van Damme is also affiliated) in the Czech Republic have documented forest loss in Socotra through satellite analysis. In one example, a large population of frankincense trees, the endemic Boswellia elongata, on the main island declined by nearly 80 percent between 1956 and 2017, with the Homhil protected area heavily affected.
Goats, also, have overgrazed and consumed shrub foliage and other vegetation. Such overgrazing has contributed to the decline in dragon blood trees, which play an important role in Socotra’s hydrological cycle. The loss of dragon blood trees has been exacerbated by recent droughts that have made it difficult for islanders to maintain small-scale agricultural activities such as home gardens and limited their fresh water supplies.
Extreme weather linked to climate change is also taking its toll, bringing unprecedented cyclones to the islands in recent years. Fierce winds have uprooted many trees and weakened others, leading to subsequent infestations of bark beetles.
“The future effects of exotic species, climate change, unsustainable resource use and habitat degradation could easily lead to extinction, since small island ecosystems are especially vulnerable to such changes,” says Van Damme.
In response, Ghent University and Mendel University have partnered with Friends of Socotra and other NGOs to implement conservation programs and build the resilience of the landscape and its people. Locals have replanted frankincense groves and a mangrove forest with support from Friends of Socotra and UNESCO’s Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, a non-profit based in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Local groups have also been given fencing to help protect trees from hungry goats.
Long-term solutions include the creation of an archipelago-wide management system to respond to emerging threats and promote sustainable natural resource use, including careful continued monitoring and conservation efforts that involve Socotra communities in ways that help their economies.
“More measures and strong collaborative efforts are urgently needed to protect the island and its biodiversity, and we should listen to the concerns of the Socotran people about their environment, as they are the true stewards of the islands,” says Van Damme. “We may soon be running out of time to protect Socotra’s most iconic ﬂagship species and the biota associated with them.”