Middle East
13 Nov 2019

Magical Socotra stands at a crossroads of conflict and conservation

The jewel in the crown of Arabia’s biodiversity is under threat. Often dubbed the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, the unique Socotra archipelago is an Important Bird & Biodiversity and UNESCO World Heritage Site of global importance for its endemic wildlife and rich ancient cultures, but action is needed before modern-day pressures change these ancient islands forever.

Socotra’s Haggier Mountains and Dragon’s Blood Trees
Socotra’s Haggier Mountains and Dragon’s Blood Trees © Richard Porter
By Dima Obeidat

Anyone who has ever visited the Socotra archipelago would describe it as like nowhere else on Earth; its dramatic landscapes and bizarrely shaped trees bring to mind an alien wonderland. Located in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Somalia and Yemen, the four-island archipelago is 250 km wide and has been isolated from the mainland for millions of years. This long geological separation has allowed the islands’ wildlife to evolve in unique ways, and over a third of its plant life is endemic, including its peculiar-looking Dragon’s blood tree Dracaena cinnabari, the crimson sap of which has been used for centuries for local medicines and dyes, and even as lipstick.

“Socotra’s unique ecosystems are one of the jewels in the crown of Arabia’s biodiversity,” says Richard Porter, BirdLife International’s adviser for Socotra, who has made multiple ornithological research trips to the archipelago over the last 25 years. Socotra holds eleven endemic bird species, such as the Socotra Buzzard Buteo socotraensis (Vulnerable),  Socotra Starling Onychognathus frater and Golden-winged Grosbeak Rhynchostruthus socotranus – Yemen’s National bird.

Socotra Golden-winged Grosbeak feeding on Croton fruits © Richard Porter

Until recently, this unique flora and fauna had remained relatively well preserved thanks to its long isolation and the strong traditional relationship between the local people and their environment. Dr. Kay Van Damme, Honorary Chair of Friends of Soqotra, explains: “Not only is the high biodiversity of Socotra unique in itself, teeming with life in its most glorious manifestation, it is also unique in the fact that it has lost none of its endemic bird, reptile or terrestrial mollusk species during the last century so far.” (Islands usually suffer the most extinctions).

Monarch Chameleon © Richard Porter

For example, in contrast to the declining global population of the Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus (Endangered), the Socotran population of 800 pairs has been able to thrive, given the harmonious relationship between people and the birds that sees residents practice traditional agricultural techniques and provide a steady supply of vulture food by throwing out carcasses. As such, Socotra is a symbol of hope for the conservation of this Endangered species, and it can be seen throughout, breeding on its limestone cliffs and escarpments, and roaming among villagers inside the souk (local market) in search of food.

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The arrival of livestock was the start of a population expansion of Egyptian Vultures on Socotra © Richard Porter

However, the safe haven that Socotra has provided for wildlife for millennia is now under threat. Conservationists have recently raised concerns that there are a series of new pressures which are jeopardising the archipelago’s ‘outstanding universal value’. These include a rise in uncontrolled developments, increased use of insecticides, unsustainable use of natural resources and inadequate biosecurity regulations which risk the introduction of invasive alien species. There are fears that these threats could disrupt Socotra’s unique ecosystems, and UNESCO World Heritage Site status – which was declared in 2008, in part thanks to efforts by BirdLife.

Socotra Sunbird taking nectar from tricocalyx flower © Richard Porter

Added to this, Socotra has been scarred by cyclone damage and troubled by Yemen’s ongoing civil war. There are fears that as Socotra develops, its environmental and cultural heritage may be lost. Frank Gardener, BBC’s Security Correspondent, speaks of the difficulties in supporting both the Socotran community and their environment:

“The challenge now is how to improve living conditions for its largely impoverished and disaster-prone population without ruining the delicate eco-balance of the island.”

Children watching birds on Socotra © Richard Porter

In light of these emerging threats, national and international organisations must unite to help the Socotran decision-makers and community make conservation a top priority. Porter says: “The extensive surveys that BirdLife supported to determine bird populations and the archipelago’s Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) are now of vital importance for informing decision-makers and those reviewing the World Heritage Site status. It is also great that our Socotran friends are taking the lead in raising awareness about wildlife conservation.  Recent events show how they are starting a wildlife conservation movement in which islanders can learn about their unique cultural heritage.”

Given the ecological importance of this archipelago and the multitude of pressures threatening not only its UNESCO World Heritage status but also its people, it is important that Socotra’s protection is brought to the forefront of decision making. Caught at the crossroads of conflict and conservation, it is vital that the right path is chosen to take these ancient islands into the future.

 

Official statement from BirdLife International:

Because of the global importance of Socotra’s biodiversity BirdLife International supports all measures that protect its unique environment: tackling unsustainable use of natural resources, such as woodland, land degradation through overgrazing and uncontrolled developments, which can be especially damaging to coastal ecosystems. These can seriously impact on the archipelago’s standing and status as a World Heritage Site. BirdLife is also aware of the dangers of invasive alien species and is supportive of all biosecurity measures to tackle their introduction and eradication. In facing these challenges BirdLife continues to offer its support to the UNE-GEF Socotra Conservation Programme and  to the conservationists and decision-makers of this biodiversity hot-spot, which has more endemic birds than any other equivalent area in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.