National Geographic : 2012 Jun
• and the Internet, and literally, through tourism. ough recent political unrest temporarily lim- ited foreign travel, over the previous decade the island's beautiful beaches, rugged mountains, unique biodiversity, and ancient culture attract- ed a burgeoning number of travelers---from 140 international visitors in 2000 to almost 4,000 in 2010. Some of Socotra's admirers fear that the Yemeni government's rush to bring the island into the 21st century may have already irrevers- ibly damaged the very things those people came to see and could bring an end to a way of life that has endured for centuries. Kay Van Damme rst came to Socotra in 1999 as part of a scienti c expedi- tion, ying on an Antonov cargo plane chartered from the Yemeni military. A specialist in fresh- water crustaceans, he remembers that he and his colleagues discovered new species simply by walking trails or wading along creeks col- lecting lizards, snails, insects, plants, and other life-forms---sometimes nding several previ- ously undescribed species in a day. As he returned to Socotra year a er year, Van Damme's purely scienti c focus gave way to a broader concern for the island and its culture. "We were invited into people's houses, and I learned that on Socotra people have a very strong connection to their environment," he says. "I realized that the only way all these spe- cies have been able to survive all this time has to do with the traditional ways in which the people have guarded their island." More than 600 villages, in most cases simply the clustered houses of extended families, are scattered across Socotra, each with its muqaddam, or respected elder. Over the centuries Socotrans developed practical ways of dealing with graz- ing, wood harvesting, land ownership disputes between clans, water-resources use, and similar issues. Unlike their counterparts in mainland Yemen, where violent feuds and tribal disputes have long been a way of life and where many men Just below us, and out of sight above, were the bulldozed curves Dazzling white sand dunes stretch for miles in places along Socotra's southern coastline, here at Aomak beach. Extremely high winds during the monsoon season constantly reshape the dunes.