The lost world of Socotra, a remote island with plants up to 20 million years old
The remote island of Socotra could be straight out of a science-fiction movie. Its native flora is so unique and foreign to the eye that it has been described as the most alien looking place on earth. But this small island, nestled in the Indian Ocean around 250 kilometres off the coast of Somalia, is very real, and is home to around 800 rare species of flora and fauna, including varieties of plants that have existed on earth for more than 20 million years.
The unique trees of Socotra island. Photo source.
The long geological isolation of the Socotra archipelago and its fierce heat and drought have combined to create a spectacular endemic flora. The site is of universal importance and was given UNESCO’s global recognition because of its biodiversity with rich and distinct flora and fauna: 37% of Socotra’s 825 plant species, 90% of its reptile species and 95% of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world.
One of the most striking of Socotra's plants is the dragon's blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), which is a strange-looking, umbrella-shaped tree. Its red sap was thought to be the dragon's blood of the ancients and was once used in medieval magic. The blood-coloured resin was also used as a dye, and today as paint and varnish. Also important in ancient times were Socotra's various endemic aloes, used medicinally, and for cosmetics.
Dried 'dragon blood'. Photo source: Wikimedia
The remote island of Socotra, whose name is thought to come from the Sanskrit for ‘blissful island’ is nestled in the Indian Ocean approximately 250km off the coast of Somalia and is home to around 40,000 inhabitants. The indigenous inhabitants are mainly of Southern Arabian descent and there are also a number of residents of Somali and Indian origin. Several of the female lineages on the island are found nowhere else on earth.
Socotra Village. Photo credit: Jonah M Kessel
Socotri children in a fishing village. Photo credit: Jonah M Kessel