High on the jagged granite highlands of the Socotra archipelago, the dragon’s blood trees, or dracaena cinnabari, are a majestic sight.
Distinguished by a moisture-capturing, dense umbrella-shaped canopy that reach towards the sky, the trees on the Yemeni island defy a merciless environment that is sometimes described as the most alien looking place on Earth.
The island’s topography includes wide sandy beaches, limestone caves and towering mountains. But its harsh environment, which is for the most part very hot and dry, has led to the distinctive appearance of its plants.
Seeing the hundreds of trees standing firm with their raised canopies, it is hard to believe that this majestic species that can live to more than 300 years is considered a vulnerable species.
It is on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning that if action is not taken to protect the trees then the species may become extinct.
At the forest in Firmihin the growth is sparse, indicating a decline in the trees’ numbers. What is more worrying is the absence of new growth, with saplings found only on cliff sides and in the most inaccessible highlands.
Conservation biologist Lisa Banfield, who studied Socotran plants as part of her work for the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and is now attached to Al Ain Zoo in a conservation role, pointed out the lack of regeneration occurring more on the edges or more marginal areas of the dragon’s blood trees’ core habitat.
“This is probably due to a combination of several main factors, the first being climate change,” she says.
“Local people say there has been a decrease in rainfall and low-precipitation clouds and some areas may just be becoming too dry for seedlings to establish themselves. The second factor is probably overgrazing and other changes in land-use patterns.”
Named a Unesco World Heritage List natural site in 2008, every landscape on Socotra, from the hot, dry lowlands to the mist-shrouded mountains, reveals a vista of surreal beauty and wonders seen nowhere else. Dubbed the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean for its incredible array of wildlife, the four-island archipelago is home to more than 800 rare species of flora and fauna, around a third of which are endemic, found nowhere else on the planet.
The island lies about 380 kilometres south of mainland Yemen in the Arabian Sea. It has a population of about 44,000 who speak Socotra, an ancient dialect without script, related to the Mahri language in Yemen and Oman.
Despite covering just 3,665 square kilometres, Socotra ranks among the world’s most important centres of biodiversity, combining elements of Africa, Asia, and Europe.
The spectacular dragon blood tree is perhaps its best known flora. The trees get their name from the red sap that oozes from their trunks when cut, and long ago people believed it to be dragon’s blood with powerful medicinal powers.
The trees can be found scattered in the plateaus of the island. However, the most extensive dragon’s blood forests are found on Firmihin, a nature reserve, tucked high in the Haghier Mountains, rugged granite peaks rising nearly 1,500 metres.
According to Ms Banfield there are around 150 plant species on the island classified as threatened, including three critically endangered species and 27 endangered.
“They are all endemic and confined to small habitats. This makes them naturally vulnerable to extinction because of factors such as climate change, habitat loss and overgrazing.”
Dr Jed Brown, a biologist with Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute, said while there may be other factors, livestock grazing is the biggest threat to Socotra’s plant life. “Everywhere on the island the constant sound one hears all the time, even in the most remote of wadis, is the bleating of goats, which devour and stunt much new growth in their path.”
To illustrate his point, Dr Brown points to the example of the endemic desert rose (adeniumobesumsokotranum), the island’s best known type of bottle tree, which survives in drier regions by storing water in it trunk. The desert rose, he notes, has not suffered as badly as the rest of the flora because goats avoid eating its poisonous sap.
Ahmed Adeeb, a local conservation officer who runs a small nursery aimed at revegetating vulnerable plants, also blames the loss of traditional lifestyles. “Goats were introduced to the island centuries ago. However, our ancestors kept their grazing in control; they were never allowed to run wild, destroying everything they came across. It is only after the opening up of Socotra and beginning of the loss of the traditional ways that we faced this problem.”
Frankincense trees have also suffered. “Socotra was famed for the seven species of the frankincense tree, all unique to the island,” Mr Adeeb says. “Only 15 years ago, Homhil protected area was a dense forest of different kinds of frankincense trees. Now, sadly, the numbers of the trees there have been reduced to less than a half.”
These challenges to the island’s biodiversity, culture and traditions are relatively recent. For centuries, Socotra was largely inaccessible. It was only in 1999 that the first airport opened and roads were paved. Since then what took decades in other areas to accomplish was consolidated in a decade.
Such developments brought new schools, a hospital, a limited electricity supply and improved telecommunications. However, the opening of the archipelago also resulted in significant immigration from the mainland. Unplanned development and construction and unscrupulous resource exploitation, including illegal industrial fishery practices by foreign fleets, have added to the destruction of the environment.
To try to stem the unfolding disaster, a UN conservation plan has designated more than 70 per cent of the island as national park land, off limits to development. But the plan has not even begun to address the subject of livestock restrictions, let alone initiate other urgently needed protective measures.
The UN plan also encourages Socotra to focus on eco-tourism as a source of much-needed income for one of the most marginalised regions of a country that is considered among the poorest in the world. Eco-tourism to the island initially proved a success when about 4,000 tourists visited in 2010. Those numbers, however, have since dropped following the Arab Spring and the unrest in mainland Yemen. The situation has improved marginally now, increasing to about 2,000. Most of the tourists are expatriates from the UAE who use Sharjah airport as a gateway to Socotra.
Ahmed Saeed, general director of the Socotra Environmental Protection Authority, the body tasked with protecting the ecology of the island, says maintaining the island for future generations while simultaneously accommodating modernisation and combating poverty is an issue that should be addressed by the Yemeni government, which, he complains, has no clear strategy for development.
Mr Saeed also expressed his concern for conservation projects being threatened because of the continuing instability in Yemen. “Conservation in Yemen depends largely on international support and most of the funding has dried up,” he said. “We are already feeling the repercussions on our projects which have stalled.”
He urged the international community to protect Socotra, one of the last places on Earth that is still largely untouched by developers.