martes, 15 de mayo de 2012

Socotra: Yemen’s Legendary Island

Where the Weird Things Are

Isolated Socotra, 220 miles from mainland Yemen, is home to a panoply of strange plants and animals uniquely adapted to the hot, harsh, windswept island.

By Mel White
Photograph by Michael Melford

It’s nearly midnight on the broad hill called Firmihin, where a dragon’s blood forest grows. The moon, a night past full, floods the jagged landscape with cool silver. Inside the rock wall of a shepherd’s compound, flames light the faces of four people sitting barefoot around a fire, sharing a pot of hot tea mixed with fresh goat’s milk.

Botanical icon of Socotra, the dragon's blood tree uses its upraised branches to grab moisture from highland mists. Conservationists fear that poor reproduction threatens the species' future.

A full moon rises over the Diksam Plateau, where dragon's blood trees grow in scattered groves. The limestone of Socotra's interior plains formed when ancient seas covered the land.

Ancient periods of volcanic activity built the Hajhir Mountains, where rugged granite peaks rise to nearly 5,000 feet. Nightly clouds provide moisture for plant life that's among the most diverse in Asia.

Chamaeleo monachus is found solely on Socotra, as are 90 percent of the island's other reptiles. Local people believe the chameleon is magic: It's said that a person hearing its hiss will lose the ability to speak.

Land snails climb trees on Socotra's arid Zahr Plain to escape heat—and also carnivorous beetles—but then they're exposed to hungry birds.

Dragon's blood forests are nearly devoid of seedlings and young trees. Some scientists blame a lack of water caused by a decrease in seasonal cloud cover—and predict that many stands could disappear within a century.

A wadi, or seasonal creek, meanders seaward among ridges of the Hajhir Mountains. Though most of the mountains' granite is reddish, a covering of lichens makes some rocks appear white.

The freshwater crab Socotrapotamon socotrensis is endemic to the island. With no native fish as competitors, these predatory crabs occupy the top spot on the aquatic food chain.

Called mishhahir in Socotri, this succulent has served as emergency food for island inhabitants during periods of famine. Its flowers provide rare points of color amid the gray limestone of the Firmihin area.

The desert rose got its name from its blossoms, though the plant is not related to cultivated roses. Herders tie strips of the poisonous bark around the necks of young goats in an effort to protect them from marauding feral cats.

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.

A brown booby lands on the western coast. At least ten kinds of seabirds breed on Socotra or the small islands around it, making the archipelago a regionally significant home for them.

Socotra's varied coastline comprises sandy beach, boulders, mudflats, and both living and fossil coral reefs. Marine resources remain vital: Many islanders make their living from fishing at least part of the year.

A frankincense tree grows in Homhil, a protected area on the eastern end of the island. In ancient times the resin of frankincense trees was valued for its intense aroma; vast quantities were burned at funerals and on ceremonial occasions.

Crotons usually grow as tall shrubs, but this cliff-top one on Socotra's southwestern coast has been “pruned” to prostrate form by sustained winds of more than 20 miles an hour.

A female kestrel brings food to her nestlings on a cliff on Socotra's southern coast. These falcons, along with other raptors like the Socotra buzzard, are the main land predators on the island.

A desert rose anchors itself on the Maalah cliffs, in the company of more than 300 other rare plant species on Socotra. In the distance lies Qulansiyah, one of the island's largest towns.

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