Geo-Joint: Socotra Island

There is no end of strange and bizarre terrain on the larger chunks of land surface on our planet. Combinations of geology, weather, and biology can combine to create beautiful and unusual locales, but islands seem to get a special advantage in the production of the offbeat. They’re certainly “offbeat” in the sense of being off the beaten path, stationed as they are out in the deep blue sea, unaccessible to many. Their landscapes may take on exotic forms if their rock types and weather are amenable, but they also have an advantage for producing strange and wonderful forms of life. Being separated from the majority gene pool makes for unique branches on the biological tree, splitting off onto crazy specialization and form.

One such example of this is in an area that might not have sprung to your mind when the the subject turned to “exotic islands.” No, today we’re not going to the South Pacific or the Caribbean or even the archipelagoes of Indonesia. Socotra Island is by far the largest of a group of four small islands in the Arabian Sea just outside the Gulf of Aden. More broadly, the islands and their watery surrounds are in the northwest corner of the Indian Ocean. Living in the neighborhood of Somalia and Yemen, which governs Socotra, the weather is predictably hot and dry. Rainfall averages less than eight inches per year, with 80 degrees F the annual average temperature. At a bit less than 1,500 square miles, the roughly 80-mile-long island has enough room for a range of habitats, from coastal lowland to craggy limestone peaks as high as 5000 feet. The deserted beaches feature dramatic windswept dunes and turquoise waters.

People have been living on Socotra, 220 miles distant from Yemen and about 140 from Somalia, for centuries. Of course there are fish to be caught in its adjacent seas, but as on the distant mainlands, many of its 44,000 residents herd goats in the highlands. Dates are raised in the lowlands. It’s a spare existence, but it has endured for a long time. Desert environments are incredibly hardy, and reliant on the uninterrupted cycles in which they have developed. Scant rain and punishing heat are givens, but other kinds of pressure and impediments to meager resources can prove fatal.

Predictably, the plant life found on Socotra has evolved to store what water it can get, and be resistant to evaporation. Its island isolation has given rise to plants and trees of forms that look straight out of Dr.Seuss: Large, bulbous shapes topped by tiny sprigs of foliage, broadly topped trees shaped like umbrellas that you would swear were topiary, curious cactuses, strange succulents. The most iconic of these is Dracaena cinnabari, the dragon’s blood tree—the one with that parasol shape. Forests of them grow on Socotra and nowhere else, except as cultivated, and they are perfectly suited for the environment—they can draw moisture from mists in the air. D. cinnabari is not alone in its singleness of origin. A third of the plants on Socotra as well as 90% of its reptiles only live on the island. Other species are similarly endemic. It’s one of the reasons the place has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, affording it status and some protection.

The residents of the 600 villages of Socotra know how to live in harmony with their fragile environment. However, the world is coming toward Socotra, and it has exploitation in mind. Already, hungry industrial fishing fleets have encroached on Socotra’s waters and severely depleted the stocks the locals rely on for sustenance. As the wonders of this fascinating place are promoted, there is a fear that increasing tourist travel will badly damage the very curiosities that attract those eager visitors. It wasn’t until very late in the last century that the island got its first airport, and although visitation is extremely modest by the standards of say, Hawaii, infrastructure is being rapidly constructed by outside entrepreneurs eager to cash in on this unusual destination. Recently, a road was routed through a rocky area, obliterating some ancient rock art. Hotels and other amenities will undoubtedly put pressure on very scarce water resources. It is a mixed blessing that develpment on Socotra has been slowed by the political turmoil of mainland Yemen, but this impediment may someday fall away. It will take careful planning and restrained ambitions to allow the outside world to experience Socotra without wrecking its astounding novelty.

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