The dragon's blood tree and the upside down umbrella tree wouldn't have looked out of place in a Dali landscape; their weirdly exaggerated dimensions and bizarre forms apparently unlikely to have sprung from nature's palate.
Yet they are natural features of the skyline some 250 kilometres off the Horn of Africa, where a quartet of islands stretch across several hundred kilometres of Indian Ocean, in a line pointing eastwards. For centuries a landmark for mariners travelling from Arabia to East Africa or India, Socotra and the three smaller nearby islands of Abd-al-Kuri, Semha and Darsa were rarely visited because of their lack of a sheltered anchorage. As a result, in part, they are today among the least spoiled places on earth because of their position.
Their beautiful, strange and completely unique biology and landscapes have led them to be described as the Gal‡pagos of the Indian Ocean - surveys have revealed that more than a third of the 800 or so plant species discovered here are found nowhere else on earth but these islands; and that they are also home to similarly unique birds, reptiles and insects. However, virtually no work had been done on the marine environment, and it was this fact which brought me here for a month, as a member of a small team of marine biologists, lucky enough to be the first to have a good look around underwater (the only other similar visit, by Dr Charles Shepard of Warwick University just one year before, had lasted just a few days).
Bounded to the north and south by the deep waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, the seas immediately around these islands are very shallow, with depths of as little as 40m recorded 50km south of Socotra, and 20km to the north.
Socotra is by far the largest of the four islands. Located at the eastern end of the group it is more than 130km long from east to west, and 40km from north to south, with a spine of spectacular 1,500m mountains along its length.
Controlled by Yemen, Socotra is home to an estimated 40,000 people, with their own distinct language and culture. The pristine condition of the natural environment of the islands is largely due to the respect that Socotrean traditions have for natural resources - for instance, camels are deliberately excluded from large areas of the island because they can upset the delicate balance in the plant communities there.
In many inland areas the felling of even a single living tree cannot be done without the agreement of a council of village leaders. Traditional management methods such as these have arguably only survived because the islands have been remarkably cut off from the outside world, and from the mixed blessings of development which closer contacts invariably bring.
This situation is going to change rapidly, as the government of Yemen has determined to build the first harbour on the island, and to improve air links. This will help to bring desperately needed medical care, education and infrastructure to the islands. Studies have shown that any development will have to be carefully balanced with conservation measures if the same old story of mass extinctions of local species, and loss of indigenous culture and identity is not to be repeated.
Our field trip was organised under the auspices of the United Nations; our task, to gather information for the Global Environment Facility of the World Bank and subsequently to draw up an urgently needed conservation blueprint for the islands to protect both land and marine habitats and the way of life of the people of Socotra.
Our task on the marine team was to build up a picture of the marine habitats and species of the islands, and their exploitation by local people. We wanted to find out what there is in the seas around the islands, what threats there are to the marine environment, how that environment is currently managed by local people, and how important the area is for conservation in local, regional and global terms. Since the marine biology of the entire area was almost completely unknown, and we had almost 500km of coastline to look at - most of which had never been glanced at by a biologist before - we had a busy three weeks' work ahead. What we found was an amazing variety of habitats ranging from coral reefs to kelp forests, and seagrasses to storm-scoured rocks, which are all populated by a fish community different from that ever recorded anywhere else.
At this point, it should be stated emphatically that Socotra is not open to ordinary visitors, diving or otherwise. The only way to get there legitimately is via the mainland of Yemen. I was to meet up with the rest of the team in Sana'a, the ancient and beautiful capital of the country, high in the mountains, several hours drive from the coast. As if to emphasise that Socotra really is not an easy place to get to, it took us a further two days, and the help of the UN office in Sana'a, to arrange a frighteningly expensive one-way ticket to the island, via military aircraft. The only other option at that time would have been a drive to the coast and then hope to find a dhow to hire for a three day boat trip!
Having eventually arrived (with almost all our kit) we
decided to worry about how we were going to get back to the mainland when
it got nearer to leaving (another story!)
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