The National Geographic article quoted below shows that this island group with a population of 50,000 human beings is unusual, not only for its biodiversity but, for the peaceable life its people have maintained over the milennia. Losing either the biodiversity or the way of life would be a tragedy, not only for them, but for all of us.
"...As he returned to Socotra year after year, Van Damme’s purely scientific 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 species 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 grazing, 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 carry a gun and jambiya (ceremonial dagger) as a matter of course, Socotrans have a tradition of resolving issues peacefully in meetings among neighboring villages. Resource conservation was the only option for survival in the harsh island environment, and it had the side effect of protecting Socotra’s outstanding biodiversity.
"... major new port, despite no one being able to say why the facility was needed. (When I visited, a sign announcing the development had been torn down by residents protesting the loss of their traditional fishing and recreation site.) Rumors in coffee shops ranged from the seemingly well founded (a politically connected Yemeni had bought land adjoining an important marine reserve for a resort hotel) to the sketchy (the U.S. military would establish a base on the southwestern coast).
"One day Lisa Banfield and I scrambled up to the cliffs near the village of Qulansiyah, on the western end of Socotra. On the red rocks here she showed me the bizarre Dorstenia gigas, a fig with a bulbous shape reminiscent of, well, nothing I can think of, and also rare myrrhs and aloes and an array of other island endemics. The Maalah cliffs and adjacent plateau, Banfield said, shelter Socotra’s second highest diversity, after the Hajhir Mountains—not just plants and invertebrates but also reptiles, whose endemism on the island tops 90 percent.
"Yet just below us, and out of sight above us, were the bulldozed curves of an unfinished road that would have cut directly across this biological treasure-house. The road project had been undertaken despite protests of conservationists; the cliffs were left unscarred only because the builders lacked the technical expertise to traverse them. Better planning would have protected biodiversity and made construction more practical. At another lowland site, called Iryosh, petroglyphs found on flat rocks may contain clues about Socotra’s earliest settlement. But in 2003 the government destroyed at least 10 percent of them by cutting a road across the area.
"Such construction opens new areas to development, and if tourism regains its momentum, pressure will grow to sell land to foreign investors. On an island with a tradition of communal ownership, disputed land claims and the possibility of quick profits are dividing villages and even families, as well as eroding long-standing respect for natural resources. Already, newly built roads snake around Socotra’s perimeter, and new hotels and shops are under construction in Hadibu, most of them owned by people who don’t live on the island.
"Yet in the Hajhir Mountains the old ways seem as enduring as the granite peaks. Village muqaddams arise at dawn and sing to their goats, and rural people still go to traditional healers who burn them to drive away disease. The night mist lifts with the sun, the Socotra starlings flit through the dragon’s blood trees, the small doves sing their throaty oh, rococo calls, and mysterious flowers bloom on hillsides where no one ever walks.
"Toward the end of my trip I traveled with Kay Van Damme, Lisa Banfield, and our guides to the Momi Plateau, an area of rolling limestone ridges and scattered shrubs underlain by vast caves full of rare endemic freshwater shrimps and other invertebrates. As we began our walk, an old man with a wispy white beard came rushing up, shouting, What were we doing on his land? We must leave! He said that if he were to let us stay, it would mean that more tourists would come to poison scorpions.
"When we agreed to pay him ten dollars, he said he would guide us over the hillside to the escarpment beyond. He walked barefoot across the sharp-edged rocks, carrying a staff that he used to accentuate his arguments. We hiked to cliffs rising nearly 2,000 feet above the shimmering blue Arabian Sea, and as we returned, the old man used his green shawl to gather a large bundle of branches, slinging the heavy load over his shoulder to carry to his hut.
"Back at the village, he said he had something to show us: a strange and mysterious object that he had found nearby. He believed it might belong to the magic snakes that guard the caves, but he wanted the foreigners’ opinion about what it might be. He took a piece of white cloth from the folds of his fouta and unwrapped it. Inside was a marble—a brown-swirled glass marble that a child might play with, yet in his world a thing of wonder.
“Socotra is still relatively pristine,” Van Damme says. “But that also means that this period right now, this whole wave of civilization and development, is the biggest threat ever to Socotra biodiversity. Socotra people have practiced conservation through their traditions, but now it’s up to all of us to keep this going in the future, to keep it strong against threats. Socotra is one of the last places on Earth where we can actually still protect a unique island environment, where we can still do something positive before it’s too late.”
"When stability returns to Yemen and roads, resorts, and eager travelers spread across Socotra, will its residents’ peaceful ways of settling disputes hold? Will people still gather in mountain villages to recite their poems in a language all their own, and will centuries-old traditions of conservation endure? If so, perhaps those who climb high into the limestone hills will still hear the song of the Socotra bunting, part of the island’s weird and wonderful array of life."
Natural history writer Mel White teamed with Mark Moffett, sometimes called Doctor Bugs, and landscape photographer Michael Melford to tell the story of Socotra. The three are regular contributors to National Geographic magazine.
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