Abdullah Aliyu paces slowly up and down along the triangular mouth of the cave. It is his cave, he says. He is tall and tanned with a strong jaw. Around his waist is a hand-woven orange fouta—the wrap-around male skirt that is traditional for many Yemeni men. He wears no shirt. “I do have a sweater,” he says, “but I don’t like it. I much prefer to be free.”
He calls himself Abdullah the Caveman, and that’s partially true. His mother was born in this cave, and he too was raised in it. Now he also has a house in the nearby town. His wife and six children live there, and he goes back each evening. “We argue over what to watch on television,” he complains. “My wife only likes dramas.”
He spends the daylight hours wandering the shoreline with homemade fishing nets, then drying and organizing—and eating—the wide variety of his catch. “This place is a paradise,” he says, as if stating a self-evident fact. “Really. Look around. Look how beautiful it is, and how much there is to eat. I am very proud to be a son of Socotra.”
Ella Al-Shamahi, a paleonanthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, stands on the deck of the wooden cargo ship that took her and the rest of the team for this story to Socotra.
Aliyu is eccentric and enigmatic, much like the place he calls home. Socotra, an island archipelago in the Indian Ocean between Somalia and Yemen, is unlike anywhere else: a zoological and botanical treasure trove, and a refugia for relic species that died out long ago elsewhere. Long protected by the traditions and stewardship of Socotrans like Aliyu, the island is now buffeted by geopolitics and rapid development and climate change. Earlier this year, I was part of a four-person team to visit the island and investigate what’s at stake as it faces an uncertain future.
Galapagos of the Indian Ocean
Socotra sits at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden, only 60 miles from the horn of Africa. Politically it is governed by Yemen, some 230 miles to the north. Geographical isolation has sculpted Socotra in its unique form. A little less than twenty million years ago, the islands broke free from the Gondwana supercontinent. For those interested in island evolution and biogeography, Socotra has become a fascinating case study.
It has been called the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.” There are parallels, certainly. Of the 825 plant species found on Socotra today, 307—37 percent— are endemic, meaning they live nowhere else. Some of the flora provide resources, like the sweet and fragrant frankincense of the Boswellia trees. Others, like the squat and bulbous subspecies of Adenium obesum, commonly called the desert rose, paint the landscape with color and oddity. The islands play host to as many as 11 unique bird species, and over 90 percent of reptiles and molluscs are endemic too.
Offshore, multiple biogeographical areas converge around Socotra creating an equally fertile, if less exceptional, marine environment. It is perhaps no wonder that, in eras gone by, Greek and Arab sailors connected this peculiar and plentiful land with paradise. Some even regarded Socotra as part of the lost mythical continent of Atlantis.
Limestone caves on Socotra have been inhabited since humans first settled the island thousands of years ago. They're still used as both homes and storage facilities.
In the Hoq cave on the north of the main island, centuries of rock art reveal how Socotra was a regular stopping point on the maritime highways of ancient trade. Those inscriptions from Indian, Ethiopian, and Southern Arabian traders have become some of the most important clues for archaeologists studying the human history on the island. They were seduced by the exotic resources of the interior, and the incense of Socotra burned as far away as Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Another popular export was what is now the flagship species of the island: the dragon’s blood tree. One version of the local legend surrounding its origin says it grew from the blood of two brothers fighting to the death; another that it was created from the blood of a dragon that was injured fighting an elephant. It’s an odd and alien-looking tree, with thick, knotted branches sprawling out to form an umbrella-shaped covering. These skyward-facing leaves collect condensation from the mists that roll along the clifftops and high plateaus of the interior. The trunk is thick and gnarled but, when sliced open, it bleeds a resin of deep crimson; the blood, perhaps, of the injured dragon.
Mohammed Abdullah has known the trees his whole life. His extended family, which now numbers nineteen, live in a small community in the center of the island, far from the coast and surrounded by rich, fertile soil. He looks after the nearby dragon’s blood trees, and once or twice a year he harvests their resin.
It has a variety of uses. Some are medicinal—it’s said that after childbirth, a woman should mix the resin with water and drink it down. It’s also used to paint clay and pottery and as nail varnish and makeup. “The tree is the most important thing on the island,” says Mohammed, indicating a more visceral connection. “It’s a part of us. The shade never goes away all day long, because of the shape.”
In a sense the tree has shielded the island itself. The vulnerability of species like the dragon’s blood tree has led to high levels of environmental protection on Socotra including, in 2008, full recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covering 75 percent of the land mass. The Diksam Plateau is one such designated area, sweeping across the center of the island and encompassing deep, winding limestone gorges. From a distance, great forests of dragon’s blood trees stretch toward the granite mountains beyond—but their abundance is misleading.
“These trees grow so slowly,” says Sami Ali, a tour guide and biodiversity student. “They can reach thousands of years old, but it’s hard to get the young ones to grow.”
An already fragile ecosystem faces an added problem: invasive species. “Here there are goats everywhere,” says Ali, “and they eat the young trees before they have a chance. Soon the dragon’s blood trees are only going to be where goats can’t reach.”
Storms wreak havoc
The myriad species that call Socotra home face other threats too. In the fall of 2015 two cyclones battered the archipelago within the space of a week. This was the first time since record-keeping began that such powerful weather systems formed in such close temporal proximity in the Arabian Sea. The infrastructure of Socotra was devastated, and 18,000 people—a third of the population—were displaced.
The land suffered too. Mohammed Abdullah spoke of how his village in the interior used to be “bountiful from God” with greenery. There was so much vegetation that one could barely see the sky, but now the crop yield is down and the land noticeably barer.
“Diksam is a different place too,” says Ali, standing on the edge of the canyon that cuts the plateau. “This place used to have beautiful streams below, and so many more trees. But now look.” Large swathes of hillside have collapsed, and uprooted dragon’s blood trees lie like great greying skeletons, their tentacled branches strewn lifeless across the plain.
Socotra was still recovering from the effects of these cyclones when another hit in May 2018. This time, at least nineteen people died. Three such hits in three years is unprecedented. The worry is that with climate change such weather will become more frequent. In other words, the storm may be just beginning for Socotra.
One cause for celebration is that Socotra has thus far remained peaceful, despite the outbreak of a brutal civil war in Yemen. Since early 2015, a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led coalition has mounted an offensive on the mainland in support of the exiled president Abd-Rabbur Mansur Hadi, to rid the country of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. After the cyclones of 2015, the embattled Yemeni government was unable to provide the aid that Socotra needed. Other Gulf nations, in particular the UAE, contributed to the effort, but that in turn has led to accusations that Abu Dhabi had taken advantage of the compromised Yemeni government to grow their own influence on the island.
In 2018 there was a standoff between the UAE and the Yemeni government on the island, and Hadibo, the capital, erupted in protest. Ultimately it was Saudi Arabia that brokered an uneasy stalemate. The exact situation now is unclear, but it appears there are three militaries on the island—not a prescription for preserving its environment.
Growth, but what kind?
The population of Socotra is perhaps 60,000, with a quarter of those inhabitants living in Hadibo, which sprawls across a section of northern coastline, between the sea and the looming cliffs of the Haggier Mountains.
Abdalgamil Mohammed, the deputy governor for environmental and development affairs on Socotra, points to the building of paved roads and an airport as examples of progress in recent decades. But unchecked urban development is also a threat. Growth must be carefully supervised, he says. He worries about population growth and overgrazing in fragile areas as well as political instability.
“Our natural heritage is unique, and our work on Socotra contributes much to saving our planet,” says Abdalgamil. Local experts have been collaborating with international research teams for decades, but these days just getting to the island is challenging. Our team spent days at sea on a wooden cargo ship, travelling through waters where the risk of Somali piracy is very real.
Socotra’s airport is operational, but the few available flights either transit through an area of mainland Yemen compromised by Al-Qaeda activity, or are only available to those with permits from the UAE. Tourism, which had grown to perhaps 3000 visitors a year by 2013, has ground to a halt since the war in Yemen began. If peace is upheld on the island, then well-managed community-based eco-tourism could prove a great boon to the economy. Poorly-executed expansion, on the other hand, could be disastrous for the environment.
Like the dragon’s blood tree, whose deep shade keeps precious water droplets from evaporating, so they seep down to the roots, Socotrans are adaptable. Abdullah the Caveman revealed that initially he moved back to his cave only to impress tourists, but eventually decided he liked it so much that he’d stay even after they stopped visiting. He enjoys the blend of ancient and modern, he says.
Finding that right blend is the challenge for the whole island. Socotra is on the frontline of a changing climate, both natural and geopolitical. Outsiders are once again staking claims to it. The sailors of old left only writing on rock walls. What will the legacy be from this generation of visitors?