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TRAVEL: The Mystique of the Socotra Islands

Posted Jan 17 2012 6:48pm

Dragons blood tree Charles Darwin, upon arriving in the Galapagos Islands in 1835, wrote : "The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else." Darwin spent five weeks on the islands, accruing observations that would inspire his opus on natural selection, The Origin of Species. Researchers call areas of the world like the Galapagos "biodiversity hotspots" — regions of incredible biodiversity that can be useful in establishing lost links between species.

Another such hotspot is Yemen's Socotra Islands , often called "the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean." Due to its unique history of continental isolation, well over a third of its species are completely endemic — that is, they're found nowhere else in the world. Socotra's unique plant life garners special attention: The dragon's blood tree, Dracaena cinnabari (pictured above), and the bottle tree, Adenium obesum (pictured below), look otherworldly.

Human life on the island is remarkably isolated. Most Socotris don't have running water or electricity, and many communicate through an ancient, unwritten language. Until 2005, there were no paved roads and no way of getting to the islands during monsoon season. Still, 44,000 people live there (almost twice the population of the Galapagos, despite Socotra's smaller landmass). A majority of them live below Yemen's absolute poverty line.

Bottle tree Socotra's significant human presence has spurred debate over how the islands' biological diversity can be preserved while progressing the humans' living conditions. Fortunately, the native Socotri have already established many environmental guidelines , which makes outside preservation efforts much easier. In April 2000, the Yemeni government passed the Socotra Zoning Plan to delinate areas into three categories: resource use, general use, and natural sanctuary. The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) got involved in 2003, with a five-year, $6 million program for sustainable development.

The islands have been open to eco-friendly tourism in the past, but the current Yemeni uprising has restricted access, especially for westerners. Security threats were already boiling before the protests started, due to the escalation of Al Qaeda presence in Yemen. Recently, the U.S. Department of State issued a statement urging that no U.S. citizen travel to Yemen. In short, don't expect a safe vacation to Socotra in the near future.

Extra tidbit: Marco Polo had an interesting take on the people of Socotra. In The Travels of Marco Polo , he remarked: "These Christians are the most skillful enchanters in the world. The Archbishop, indeed, forbids and even punishes this practice, but without any avail . . . For instance if a ship is proceeding full sail with a favourable wind, they raise a contrary one, and oblige it to return." Make of that what you will.

--Justin Cohn / images: iStock/DavorLovincic

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