26 January, 2007

Socotra: Yemen's Last Frontier

Large, mysterious, unique, exotic, isolated, spectacular, a treasure house for botanists and conservationists, almost five and a half times the size of Singapore in land area - are all descriptions that fit Socotra. Yes, Socotra or Soqotra or Suqutra, is large (3,625 km²), but very sparsely populated; and at times, due to the difficult Monsoon weather from June to September - inaccessible by sea. But, as of late - not any more. More and more people are discovering the magic of Socotra - by air; mainly tourists and businessmen. Tourists: to feast on the wonders of Socotra; businessmen: to make money from those wonders. Yet: both are good for the Island but at the same time - they can be destructive.
Socotra map - click on map to enlarge
Socotra Island is the largest island in Yemen, approximately 130 Km long by about 30 Km wide. The archipelago consists of the main island of Socotra (3,625 km2 (1,400 sq mi)), and four other outlying islands: Abd Al-Kuri, Samha and Darsah that are uninhabitable by humans but important for seabirds. The archipelago has interesting affinities with other groups of islands including Seychelles and some remote islands of the Atlantic Ocean. The main island has three narrow coastal plains, a limestone plateau permeated with karstic caves and, inland, the Hagierah Mountains (جبال حجيره). The mountains rise up to about 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above sea level. The island is a little over 80 miles (130 km) long east to west and typically 18 miles (29 km) wide. It has a population of about 70,000; a population who have their own distinct language and culture; and who also speak Arabic. The coastal area is inhabited by fishermen; a majority of whom are of African origin and live in African huts. Whereas the valleys are inhabited by nomads of Arab origin; and the mountain regions are inhabited by nomads and descendants of an old South Arabian tribe who still speak the old Arabian dialect Socotri, which is related to the Mahri dialect (Mahra) - another old and ancient Yemeni language.
Soqotra map - click on map to enlarge
Having been virtually isolated from the rest of the world for a long period, Socotra remains one of the most fascinating places on earth. Many animals and plants that are today on Socotra - are found nowhere else on earth. Socotra has been isolated biologically for several million years, and about one-third of the animals and plants on the Island, are only found there. Examples of these are: 24 endemic reptiles, 6 types of birds - like the Socotra sparrow, centipedes, one sort of dragonfly, land crabs discovered as late as 1997 at an altitude of 700 meters, and 25 types of jumping insects. The Island has a number of distinct flora species, like myrrh, frankincense and dragon's blood tree. In the olden days, dragon's blood tree was an important ingredient in different types of dye, used for varnishing violins and making ink all over the world. Socotra, is rich too and diverse - in its marine life, with a mixture of species originating from far and wide.

Yemen, is still in most places undeveloped and very traditional; Socotra being the most undeveloped. But not for long. As with other parts around the country, development is rapid and at times - destructive. The very fragile and unique ecosystem that makes Socotra one of a kind, is now, more than ever before - threatened. For how long will Suqutra retain its magic and uniqueness?

Socotra, Soqotra, Souqotra or Suqutra - however pronounced, is the same Island. What does Socotra mean? Most probably the name comes from the Arabic word souq, meaning market; and qatra meaning a drop of fluid. Socotra was a large market for frankincense and other liquid products extracted from plants on the Island.

More on Socotra: from this Site

And: WWF , Worldwildlife, Google Maps, Virtual Earth, Encarta Maps, Flickr Photos,Guardian, Yemen-Explorers, the Royal Botanic Gardens and find out about the weather here