National Geographic : 2012 Jun
Inside the rock wall of a shepherd's compound, ames light the faces of four people sitting bare- foot around a re, sharing a pot of hot tea mixed with fresh goat's milk. Neehah Maalha wears a saronglike garment called a fouta; his wife, Metagal, wears a long dress and matching head scarf in rich purple. ey talk about their lives on the island of So- cotra, in a language whose origins are lost in time---unchanged for centuries and understood today by fewer people than live in Ames, Iowa. Although the couple can't read, they know that the new sign down the hill says that Firmi- hin has been declared a protected nature reserve. Foreigners come to their village, they say, to photograph the dragon's blood trees and the desert rose plants and the mishhahir owers. Scientists come and turn over rocks, claiming to be collecting insects and lizards. What are they really looking for? Two hundred twenty miles across the Arabian Sea from the rest of troubled Yemen, Socotra was once a legendary place at the edge of maps of the known world. For sailors it was fearsome, with dangerous shoals, ferocious storms, and residents who were believed to control winds and turn ships toward shore for capture and plunder. Today Socotra's rich biological diversity brings new explorers, who hope to learn its se- crets before the modern world changes it forever. Suddenly the worry on Metagal's face gives way to a bemused smile. She disappears into the darkness and returns to o er me a small, paper-wrapped package. Would I like to buy some frankincense? Neehah takes a tiny piece and places it on a coal from the re. Smoke rises and swirls, and we breathe the lush scent that perfumed the funerals of Egyptian pharaohs and the temples of Greek gods. , Greeks, and Romans all tapped the treasures of Socotra's natural world: aromatic resins such as frankincense, medicinal aloe extract, and the dark red sap of the dragon's blood tree, used for healing and as an artist's color. Adventurers came to harvest the island's wealth, despite stories that it was guard- ed by giant snakes living in its caves. e Queen of Sheba, Alexander the Great, and Marco Polo were among those who coveted Socotra's riches. The value of incense and dragon's blood peaked during the time of the Roman Empire. A erward, the island served mostly as a way station for traders, passing centuries in relative cultural isolation. Socotra's residents lived gen- eration a er generation as their ancestors had: the mountain Bedouin minding their goats, the coastal residents shing, and everyone har- vesting dates. Island history was passed down through poetry, recited in the Socotri language. Other than its strategic location o the Horn of Africa, there simply wasn't anything about Socotra that interested the outside world. But that has changed. IIt's nearly midnight on the broad hill called Firmihin, where a dragon's blood forest grows. e moon, a night past full, oods the jagged landscape with cool silver. By Mel White Photographs by Mark W. Mo ett and Michael Melford Land snails climb trees on Socotra's arid Zahr Plain to escape heat---and also carnivorous beetles--- but then they're exposed to hungry birds.