Socotra’s “dragon’s blood” trees threatened
Ancient, umbrella-shaped dragon-blood trees line the craggy peaks of Socotra in Yemen – symbols of the extraordinary biodiversity of the Indian Ocean archipelago, but also a grim warning of an environmental crisis.
The forests of these ancient trees are reduced by increasingly intense storms, while the replacement young trees are eaten by goats, leaving the fragile biological hotspot vulnerable to desertification.
“Trees bring water, so they are so important,” said Adnan Ahmed, math teacher and tourist guide with a passion for the flora and fauna of Socotra.
“Without trees, we’ll be in trouble.”
Located in a turquoise sea between Arabia and Africa about 350 kilometers south of the Yemeni coast, Socotra is home to over 50,000 people and is relatively untouched by the civil war raging on the continent.
Having named it a World Heritage Site in 2008, Unesco described the main island as one of the “richest and most distinct in biodiversity” in the world.
It has also been called the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean”.
Mr Ahmed said islanders have traditionally not cut down dragon blood trees for firewood, both because they perpetuate the regular rainfall and because its blood-red sap is medicinal.
But scientists and islanders have said the trees will largely die within decades, warping under pressure from global warming that leads to cyclones, as well as invasive species and overgrazing.
“The goats eat the seedlings, so the young trees are only found on the cliff walls in the most inaccessible places,” Ahmed said.
Trees take nearly half a century to reproduce, he said. “If nothing is done, it won’t be long before it’s all gone.”
‘To not have enough time’
Declining forests are an indicator of the threat to Socotra’s environment, said Belgian biologist Kay Van Damme of Ghent University.
“It remains a treasure trove of biodiversity,” said Mr Van Damme, chairman of the Friends of Socotra support group. “But we may soon run out of time to protect Socotra’s flagship species.”
Every tree lost causes a reduction in the hydrological cycle on which all life depends.
Islanders say the trees have been battered by more fierce storms than can be remembered.
In Diksam, on the plateau surrounding the Hagher Mountains, skimming the 130-kilometer and 1,500-meter-high island like a backbone, dead trees are strewn like bowling pins.
Other local species are equally hard hit by storms and overgrazing, including the 10 endemic frankincense tree species.
Gales have uprooted nearly a third of the trees in Homhil Forest over the past decade.
Without replanting efforts, the forest “will be gone in just a few decades,” Van Damme said.
A study found that the number of frankincense trees fell by 78% in this region between 1956 and 2017.
“Socotra’s immune system is now compromised,” he said, but added “there is still hope”.
Landslide scars caused by vegetation loss are common.
“If the trend continues, perhaps future generations could visit a Socotran incense tree only in a botanical garden, accompanied by a small plaque saying ‘extinct in the wild’,” Mr Van Damme said. .
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said Socotra is under “high threat” and the “deteriorated” situation will be “accelerated by climate change”.
Islanders are feeling the impact of climate change.
Abdullah Ahmed, from a small fishing village near Shuab, a cluster of solidly built coral stone houses, said the 40 residents were threatened by both extreme high seas and landslides.
They built a village 10 minutes walk from the sea.
“The waves of the latest storms have shattered the windows of our house,” said the 25-year-old, describing how his family had taken refuge, terrified, in caves for days.
“The last monsoon was worse than anyone else.”
“We have a chance”
But with effort, the worst impact can be slowed down – and some Socotris are doing what they can to protect their island.
In a community-run dragon’s blood nursery the size of a football field, dozens of knee-high saplings resembling pineapple plants are the result of at least 15 years of growth.
“It’s a start, but a lot more is needed,” Ahmed said, looking over the chest-high stone wall that protects saplings from goats. “We need support.”
Sadia Eissa Suliman was born and raised in Detwah Lagoon, declared a wetland of global importance under the Ramsar Convention.
“I saw how the lagoon was changing,” said the 61-year-old grandmother, who watched sections of felled trees, discarded plastic and fishing nets trawling the water, a nursery for young fish .
“Everyone said someone else would do something,” she said. “But I said, ‘Enough: I will, and people will see the difference.'”
She is now helping the community enforce a fishing ban and raising funds to fencing trees and tackling litter.
Scientists are also determined that Socotra does not become just another loss case study.
“We have a chance as humans not to spoil this one, otherwise we have learned nothing from other examples of mass extinctions on the islands,” said Mr Van Damme.
“Socotra is the only island in the world where no reptile, plant or bird to our knowledge has gone extinct in the past 100 years. We have to make sure it stays that way.”