Off Yemen's southeast coast in the Indian Ocean is the archipelago of Socotra. You've probably never heard of it, but it's often referred to as "the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean," and for good reason. That's because Socotra — which is comprised of four islands and two rocky islets — is home to spectacular flora and fauna you'll find nowhere else on Earth.
Socotra is part of Yemen, the Middle Eastern country that is currently mired in a civil war that has been ongoing for seven years. The islands are located 250 miles (402 kilometers) off the coast of Yemen and about 60 miles (96 kilometers) off the coast of the Horn of Africa. The main island of Socotra, which is the largest and most diversified, is comprised of rugged plateaus at varying sea levels. Its vegetation features dry and succulent shrublands and semi-evergreen woodlands, as well as evergreen woodlands and grasslands. The other islands are drier and more arid.
Aside from the island's endemic plant and animal species, Socotra is home to around 60,000 people who live on the main island. They have been living on these islands for millennia, and speaking their own Socotri language. The islands have been part of trade routes for centuries and there are artifacts on the islands from sailors dating back to the first century B.C.E.
Socotra's Alien-like Trees
But as we mentioned, what makes Socotra so special are the plants and animals found there. They're part of the reason Socotra was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
Socotra has been an island for at least 20 million years, attracting birds, insects and seeds from the wind, which has made it unusually biodiverse. When United Nations biologists conducted a survey of the islands in the 1990s, they found that there were nearly 700 endemic species — meaning they are only found there. The only places at the time with more were Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands.
Of the 825 plant species found on Socotra, 37 percent are endemic. Probably the most famous of Socotra's native plant life is the dragon's blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), so named for its red sap that has been used in dyes and medicines. These strange trees have sturdy trunks and large branches that come together to mimic the shape of an umbrella. The leaves resemble large pine needles. Like many of the species on the archipelago, these trees took on their odd shape to adapt to the island's hot and dry climate.
There are many other unusual plants, such as the Adenium socotranum, also known as the Socotra desert rose. It can store water in its giant trunk and doesn't grow many flowers or leaves. And the islands are home to two very famous plants: frankincense and myrrh.
The Animals Are Wild Here, Too!
The trees and plants may look crazy on Socotra, but the islands are also home to rare animals, as well. More than 90 percent of its reptiles are endemic to the archipelago. Nearly 200 land and sea birds — many of which are threatened — live on and migrate through Socotra, including the Socotra sunbird, the Egyptian vulture, the Socotra cormorant and Socotra bunting. And marine life thrives here, too. There are more than 250 types of coral, nearly 750 types of fish, and 300 different species of lobster, shrimp and crab, including the Socotra limestone crab.
The only mammals native to the area are bats, which live in the islands' many caves.
Are Socotra's Species in Danger?
Unfortunately, the plant and animal life here face threats similar to those in the rest of the world. One of these threats are invasive species, such as goats. Because the dragon's blood trees grow slowly, goats eat the young trees before they have a chance to grow. The trees can reach thousands of years old, but it's getting harder for them to propagate.
Another issue the island faces is weather. In the fall of 2015, two cyclones hit the archipelago in one week. According to reporting from The Washington Post, historical weather records dating as far back as 1891 show no evidence of two storms hitting Yemen consecutively in this way. Then in 2018, another storm hit, causing major flooding and at least 11 deaths. Major storms like these could continue to impact the islands because of climate change. In addition, crop yield is down and the land isn't as green as it once was.
In 2018, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recommended placing the Socotra archipelago on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
"Socotra Archipelago is facing a multitude of threats and many of them stem from fast-paced human activities which must be controlled," Peter Shadie, senior adviser on World Heritage at International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said in a press statement. "Placing the site on the List of World Heritage in Danger can help mobilize equally fast-paced action to secure Socotra's conservation while responding to the needs of local people."
Yemen's Civil War and the Islands
Thanks to its distance from the mainland, the people in Socotra were able to keep out of the conflict for a number of years. However, in 2018, the war between Yemen and the United Arab Emirates finally erupted on the island and Socotra became the focus of a power struggle between the two governments.
Then in 2020, Yemeni separatists known as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized control of the island away from the Saudi-backed government. However, the UAE still holds a lot of power there. In spite of all this tension, the islands have so far been spared from the violence of the war, and some Yemenis have retreated to the archipelago from the mainland to seek refuge from the violence.