Looking like a cross between a surreal computer game and an alien planet, Socotra is a relatively unexplored and remote island off the coast of Arabian Peninsula. It’s a sparkling diamond of natural diversity and rugged wildness, with over 700 endemic species of flora and fauna. Only a small number of countries have more endemic species – New Zealand, Hawaii, the Galapagos Islands and New Caledonia. The entire flora of the Socotra Archipelago has been assessed as being internationally significant and there are three Critically Endangered and 27 Endangered plant species recognised by the UN as of 2004.
Socotra is part of the Republic of Yemen and has been largely inaccessible to tourism until recent decades when an airport has allowed for marginally increased tourism to the island. The endemic species on Socotra are the remains of ancient fauna and flora, and the location hasn’t flooded since the Mesozoic era. Therefore Socotra is listed as World Heritage by Unesco.
The Dragon’s Blood Tree Dracaena cinnabari
This strange umbrella-shaped tree features vivid red sap which was thought to be reminiscent of dragon’s blood to the ancients. Earlier civilisations sought after the sap as a red dye, which is still used today as paint and varnish.
Many of these endemic plants were used medicinally, and for cosmetics by locals. Other endemic plants include the giant succulent tree Dorstenia gigas, the cucumber tree Dendrosicyos socotranus, the rare Socotran pomegranate (Punica protopunica), Aloe perryi, and Boswellia socotrana.
Socotran chameleon Chamaeleo monachus
The Socotran chameleon is a species of chameleon endemic to the island of Socotra. It’s prone to making a hissing noise when threatened and changing its colour to fit in with its surroundings like other species of chameleon. It lives in dense shrubland and palm plantations.
Socotra Island blue baboon tarantula Monocentropus balfouri
Monocentropus balfouri is a vividly beautiful tarantula endemic to Socotra. It’s an African bird spider and is considered as one of the most beautiful spiders on earth. They vary in colour from red and amber to mauve and indigo. They have a leg span of 18 cm and a nasty venomous bite.
Cucumber tree Dendrosicyos socotranus
The people of Socotra
Most of the people living on Socotra are from the indigenous Al-Mahrah tribe, who are of Southern Arabian descent, there are also a small number of Somali and Indian people. The Semitic language of Soqotri is spoken there which is related to other Modern South Arabian languages. The largest centre of population is on the eponymous island of Socotra where approximately 50,000 people live in the principal city, Hadibu. Locals tend to goats and sheep and also trade in tobacco, prunes and ghee.
Explorer Marco Polo on Socotra
I give you my word that the people of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world. It is true that the archbishop does not approve of these enchantments and rebukes them for the practice. But this has no effect, because they say that their forefathers did these things of old. Book of the Marvels of the World, C 1300.
The amenities available on Socotra are primitive. The electricity in parts of the island is delivered via a generator and there are only a handful of paved roads. Although knowing that there’s barely any electricity or creature comforts to be found on the island won’t dissuade people from visiting. A burgeoning business is happening now for eco-tourism to the island, which has proven popular for conservationists and adventurous types.