Written by Zoe Stephens
Socotra is an island and archipelago of four islands in the middle of nowhere in the Arabian Sea. It’s a territory of Yemen, but since 2013 is self-governed by the Socotra Governorate. Just a quick Google image search will give you all the reasons you need to visit Socotra, crowned “the most alien-looking planet on Earth”.
Despite its small size of only 83×27 miles, it ranks among the world’s most important centres of biodiversity. 1/3rd of this isolated islands plant life is found nowhere else on the planet. You couldn’t even think up some of the plant life found in this dream-like fantasy world.
“The most alien-looking planet on Earth”
History & Culture
The name Socotra itself is derived from Sanskrit meaning “The island of bliss”. This comes from a large amount of Indian influence on Socotra archipelago since ancient times.
Since it is fairly untouched by the outside world, Socotrans pride themselves on traditions and still use ancient methods of doing things. Although, over the centuries they have fine-tuned some practical aspects such as wood harvesting, grazing and using water-resources. Community is very important in Socotra and houses are typically clustered and families and extended families live together or in the same village. There are over 600 villages throughout the island, each with their own muqaddam – respected elder.
Socotra has three main geographical terrains which make for an incredible and diverse landscape. There are narrow coastal plains outlining the island, and limestone plateaus with karstic caves ready to be explored (some 7 km in length). The Haghier Mountain terrain pierces the scenery fiercely and you can see it throughout the land, reaching up to 1525 meters high.
If you’re a fan of all things nature, you can’t get much better than Socotra. It was only recently made famous of the biology map. It is considered a unique treasure of biodiversity. In the 1990s, a team of biologists conducted a survey and counted nearly 700 endemic species. In other words, species found nowhere else in the world. Definitely something to impress your friends with!
The island was recognized as a UNESCO world natural heritage site in 2008 and has remained largely untouched by interference from tourism. This is partly due to its incredibly remote location. Even though the island has over 40,000 inhabitants, the first roads were only built two years ago by the Yemeni government.
Socotra’s most iconic plant is the Dragon’s Blood tree. This is the bizarre, umbrella-shaped tree that looks like its straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. It was once thought that the red sap it produces was dragon’s blood, hence the name. This sap is now used today as paint and varnish.
The island is home to over 140 different species of birds, 10 of which are unique to the archipelago. These include the Socotra starling, Socotra sundbird, Socotra bunting, and the Socotra sparrow.
There are many different species of reptiles living on Socotra including skinks and legless lizards. The only mammal native to Socotra is the bat.
The coral reefs of Socotra are diverse, as well as the sea life to go with it. The surrounding seas are a diver’s paradise thanks to the underwater landscape of shipwrecks and boats sunk by Somali pirates.
From the occasional biologist or researcher entering the island years ago, the number of visitors to the island has expanded rapidly. Socotra now sees over 4,000 annual tourist visitors, in comparison to just a mere 140 international visitors in 2000. The Yemeni government are eager to maximise the tourist industry, however, it is also important that we don’t lose one of the world’s last truly unique treasures whilst we still have the chance. If you do get the chance to visit this curious land, do make sure to be respectful of your surroundings and travel responsibly.