Nestled high on a plateau between the Haghier mountain range and the Arabian Sea, five Socotrans gathered in a stone hut devoid of electricity, running water and all but the most essential supplies. After a fire-cooked dinner of goat, rice and tea, a group of Dixam plateau men settled in for a standard night of song, poetry and discussion about their island’s future.
Socotra is an island of roughly 50,000 people located 380km off the coast of Yemen, the country to which it only technically belongs. Far removed from the political and security instability on the mainland, Socotra’s stunning microclimates, exceptional biodiversity and Candyland-like features make it an inimitable paradise.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, the Socotra archipelago is home to hundreds of endemic or endangered plant and animal species. The iconic “Dragon’s Blood” tree (Dracaena cinnabari), for instance, defies expectations, with moisture-capturing canopies that reach toward the sky and sap that runs red, giving the plant its name. Socotran culture is equally unique, having been preserved by centuries of near total isolation.
As is typical of the island’s residents, none of the men in Dixam know their age, let alone their birthdate. A few are fluent in Arabic, but most prefer to speak Socotri, a sharp yet pleasant native language spoken only on the island. Since 1999 though, when a commercial airport was built on the outskirts of the capital Hadibu, outsiders have started to discover Socotra, a trend that is helping to ease poverty and diversify the economy, but is also putting the traditional way of life at risk.
“We protect the environment and nature because when visitors come they are comfortable,” said one man in the hut, unconsciously verbalising Socotra’s shift from a self-sufficient oasis to one increasingly reliant on external support.
Over the last decade, tourism has been a boon to the economy. The pristine environment and untouched feel makes Socotra an alluring, yet under-travelled destination. Visitors can wander over cragged peaks, through Dragon's Blood forests, deep into stalagmite caves and across white sand dunes before plunging into the crisp, blue ocean. They can hike the 1,520m-high Skand peak, swim alongside dolphins, rock climb, lounge on world-class beaches or stop and try the locals’ fermented goat’s milk; no doubt an acquired taste.
From the western-most city of Qalansiyah to the Dihamri Protected Area on the island’s northeastern point, goats are a notably ubiquitous part of the landscape. Brought to Socotra centuries ago by sailors, they reproduced rapidly and are now a staple of island life, providing both food and income for their owners. Unfortunately, they also eat virtually everything in their path, including the seedlings of rare plants.
Harry Jans, a passionate traveller and amateur botanist, learned about Socotra after seeing a picture of the Dragon’s Blood tree on the side of a garbage can at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Intrigued, he typed the words into Google and was blown away by the strange images before him. A quick search for Socotra brings up not only the Dragon’s Blood, but also the gnome of the plant world: the endemic Desert Rose (Adenium obesum sokotranum). With its stout, branchless trunk topped with tufts of green leaves, the Desert Rose is the island’s most well-known type of Bottle tree, a variety that survives in island’s drier regions by storing water in their trunks.
“This is an inspection tour to get more info about Socotra,” he explained less than a year later, sitting on a beach during a break from snorkelling in Dihamri. Jans leads botanical tours around the world, and plans to return to Socotra again in 2015 with, as he puts it, “20 plant freaks”.
Despite an influx of tourists, Socotra can hardly be described as crowded. Even prior to the Arab Spring uprisings that swept Yemen in 2011, Socotra hosted a mere 4,000 tourists per year, most of whom would visit between September and April to avoid the island’s summer windy season. Due to the unrest, visitor numbers took a precipitous drop into the hundreds, but this past season the figure climbed back up to 1,400, a sign that the industry is beginning to recover.
Yet as Mohammed Amer, the former head of Socotra’s environmental office, pointed out, any increase in visitors poses a challenge. “The problem we always have, with the environment, is that we clash with the interests of the people.”