National Geographic : 2012 Jun
Aomak beach Ras Erisal (Rhiy di Irisal) Ras Dehammeri (Rhiy di Hamri) HAJHIR MOUNTAINS Arabian Sea Bidholeh Zahaq Hadibu Mityaf 4,984 ft 1,519 m 54° E 54° 10′ 12° 20′ 12° 40′ N "In its growth habit this is very similar to Ade- nium," Ban eld said, "but actually it's Dendrosi- cyos socotrana---the cucumber tree." Cucumber? "Yes, it's the only tree species in Cucurbita- ceae, a family that we'd expect to be growing as straggly climbers or vines. But here you can see some really big ones, with huge trunks. ey look completely out of this world." It is, however, another endemic tree, the dragon's blood, that's come to symbolize Socotra, its distinctive shape even depicted on Yemen's 20-rial coin. A relative of the common house- plants of the genus Dracaena, it grows on the plateaus and mountains over much of the island. e most extensive dragon's blood forests are found on Firmihin, where I'd spent the evening with Neehah and Metagal. e next day, under a relentless sun, Lisa Ban eld and her Socotra colleague Ahmed Adeeb took me out for a hike around Firmihin. The landscape was a jumble of limestone rocks eroded into knife-edge shapes. e burnt brown harshness was interrupted here and there by the brilliant crimson owers of the succu- lent mishhahir, as anomalous as a ag on the moon. All around us dragon's blood trees li ed their branches skyward, looking, as many have remarked, like blown-out umbrellas. Even in a forest of dragon's blood, the individual trees keep their distance, like shy people at a party. Hundreds and hundreds of dragon's blood trees stretched in all directions, but Ban eld pointed out a troubling fact: Almost no young trees sprouted from the rocks beneath the mature ones. Many plants here rely on mists for water. Some of Socotra's rarest endemics grow on steep cli s in the mountains and around the island's perimeter, where they soak up moisture that collects when mist condenses on rocks. ose upturned dragon's blood branches are in fact an evolutionary adaptation to gather precious moisture from mist in the air---and there is less of that water available now. If climate change is responsible for the lack of regeneration of dragon's blood and other rare plants, there may be no short-term solution. In the meantime Ban eld and other conservationists are equally concerned about other human-caused threats to Socotra's biodiversity. existed on Socotra un- til 1999, nor were there any paved roads. Since then, though, the pace of development has been rapid. Changes that in other places took decades have been compressed into a few years here. More and more vehicles crisscross the island on an ever growing highway system. e outside world has come to Socotra both guratively, through television, mobile phones, VIRGINIA W. MASON, NGM STAFF SOURCES: KAY VAN DAMME, GHENT UNIVERSITY; LISA BANFIELD; FRIENDS OF SOQOTRA; KAMIL KRÁL, MENDEL UNIVERSITY, BRNO; LANDSAT SCALE VARIES IN THIS PERSPECTIVE. RAS SHUAB TO RAS ERISAL IS 83 MILES 134 KILOMETERS . HOTSPOT More than a hundred of Socotra's endemic species live here; half of them are unique to this mountain region. Natural history writer Mel White teamed with Mark Mo ett, sometimes called Doctor Bugs, and landscape photographer Michael Melford to tell the story of Socotra. e three are regular contributors to National Geographic magazine.