Heat, isolation and pirates have conspired to make the tiny Yemeni island of Socotra an epicentre of strange, alien-like biodiversity. At least, that’s what Simon Norfolk’s photos suggest – the place is so hard to get to, we’ll have to take his word for it. For starters, there are the Somali pirates that trawl the surrounding Arabian Sea, warding off would-be tourists from visiting and inevitably tampering with the ecosystem.
That’s only the most recent cause of the island’s strangeness: for millennia the environment on Socotra has been so hot and dry that life has had to find peculiar ways to survive. A small place, recent field surveys suggest that almost half the plant species on Socotra are found nowhere else on Earth. Chief among these is the umbrella-shaped dragon’s blood tree, so-called for its red sap, which was used long ago as both a dye and a medicine, and is still prized today for its use as a paint and varnish.
Next up are the bottle trees that dot the island’s white dunes and desert mountains; strange, stumpy-looking things that spring to life in a display of colour just once a year, after the monsoon. Things used to be even more diverse: forests of frankincense once dotted the archipelago, suggesting Socotra once made its money exporting the nice-smelling resin to the churches of ancient Christendom.
It’s a shame that Socotra – like all of war-torn Yemen – remains so hard to get to. Though given the precarious state of the world’s ecosystems, maybe it’s for the best that we leave this one alone. Who would have thought pirates could be a force for good in the world?