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Socotra – The Hidden Gem

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May 16, 2017 by Species Ecology

Socotra – The Hidden Gem

Nour Habjoka

Socotra lies in the Indian Ocean 170km to the east of the Horn of Africa and 500km to the south of Yemeni mainland, to which it belongs politically. Socotra is actually an archipelago, a series of islands, which extends on an area of 3,625km2. It is home to some 40,000 inhabitants who live mostly in the capital city of Hadibu and the nearby city of Qalansia. Depending on their proximity to the shore, people are either fishermen or work in farming and livestock rearing. Socotra is a living example of how man and nature have coexisted in harmony for centuries. There, people do not hunt unnecessarily and use plant products purposefully.

Afloat in the Indian Ocean, Socotra has done a good job hiding from the rest of the world and preserving its fragile ecosystems, but this very state has led to its own seclusion. The inhabitants’ language, Socotri, for example still has no words to describe things that are not found on the island, and are borrowed from other languages such as Arabic. Socotra is home to some of world’s most entrancing rare flora and fauna which have ceased to exist everywhere else in the world. It is rich and quite unique in its biodiversity. There exist hundreds of endemic (native) species including more than 300 plants, 28 reptiles, 10 birds, and counting! New endemic species are discovered on this archipelago every year. Moreover, according to United Nations Educational Social & Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 37% of its plant species, 90% of its reptile species and 95% of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world.

Of the endemic plant species that have made a home of the archipelago the most famous is the dragon’s blood tree, Dracaena cinnabari (Ruscaceae), which existed in Europe millions of years ago. Forests of these trees seem to have been forgotten by time. The islands have been declared a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Global 200 Ecoregion, a Plantlife International Centre of Plant Diversity, and are included in the Horn of Africa Biodiversity Hotspot. It is considered by botanists to be one of the most endangered islands in the world.

Socotra is an important stopover for migratory birds and sea bird breading grounds where Birdlife International identified more than 22 Important bird areas. 43 of the 210 recorded bird species in Socotra are native, and more than 160 are migratory. Reptiles are key player in the ecosystem acting as plant pollinators, predators of small insects, and feed for birds of prey. They have been the centrepiece of folkloric Socotri myths describing legendary crocodiles, giant lizards, and huge snakes. Socotra counts about 30 species of terrestrial reptiles, 90% of which are endemic, all of which endangered. Socotra has a diverse shoreline landscape comprising sandy beaches, cobble beaches, rock coves, mudflats, lagoons, and coral reef. As a result of this wide range of habitats, it is home to rich marine biodiversity. For example, despite Socotra’s small size, the number of its registered hard corals and fish is said to match that of the Red Sea.

Socotra’s endemic flora and fauna are threatened by the very development and advance it seeks. For instance, the construction and road building promise to destroy the plant and animal habitats in its way. Climate Change is another risk that threatens this natural paradise with desertification. Moreover, with the emergence of development and exposure to the world, the threat of the invasion of alien species increases. Hence the introduced mammals, such as cats, prey on the reptile populations. Last but not least, irresponsible activities exercised by visitors and newcomers such as illegal animal hunting and collecting are yet another risk that threatens animal life.

Endowed with vast, empty beaches, snorkelling-friendly coast, and rich wildlife, Socotra is bound to become a popular eco-tourism attraction sooner or later. With all the opportunities that will come along with that, Socotra needs to strive to preserve its culture and unique way of life while embracing modernity.

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