We left camp at midnight and followed a winding road through the Diksam Plateau on the island of Socotra in Yemen. Under the cover of starlight and sprawling branches, we passed shadows like saucers hovering above the island’s craggy surface.
Ali Bin Adam, my guide, reached into a plastic bag clinging to his steering column and offered me a handful of qhat, a leafy plant popular in Yemen as a stimulant. Our destination was the village of Diksam, in the heart of Socotra and the epicenter of the world’s only distribution of Dracaena cinnabari, or dragon’s blood trees. We were heading there to talk to the people that live there, to learn about efforts to safeguard the elusive tree amidst a changing climate and regional instability.
Socotra rests like a jewel nestled between the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, northeast of the Horn of Africa. Deemed the “Galápagos of the Indian Ocean” and listed as a World Heritage Site in 2008, the island hosts a number of peculiar looking endemic species, including birds, reptiles, and mollusks. In fact, 37 percent of its 825 plant species are found nowhere else on Earth.
On the plateau, the dragon’s blood trees stick out like giant solitary mushrooms, their tops anchored by dozens of thick branches that look like tentacles. In a landscape of stone and leafless shrubs, this tree is the only vegetation that rises more than five feet in height. It’s named for the red sap it produces. The few that guard the road on the way to Diksam bear scars where their sap had been harvested for medicine and dye.
An iconic tree on the Socotran landscape, the dragon’s blood tree is threatened. Habitat fragmentation, livestock grazing, and climate change have reduced the tree to just a fraction of its native range. Now, researchers and local residents are trying to help it survive.
And that protection could save a lot more than just the dragon’s blood tree. New research published in Forests classifies Dracaena cinnabari as an umbrella species. Dragon’s blood trees provide food and shelter to at least a dozen reptile species, including a critically endangered gecko known as Hemidactylus dracaenacolus. Saving the dragon’s blood tree would save both a cultural icon and a critical habitat.
I had the opportunity to visit the island earlier this year, recruited by an English language center financed by the Khalifa Foundation and ultimately run by the government of the United Arab Emirates.
“[This island] takes a while to get used to,” said Vincent Chan, a colleague at the center who picked me up from the airport. “But it’s like paradise. No, it is paradise,” he added as we snaked past empty beaches and scores of clay-faced Egyptian vultures on our way to the island’s sole city of Hadibo. We passed turquoise lagoons and hillsides covered in desert roses, a quirky looking plant with an elephant-like trunk and a crown of pink flowers.
Journey to the island is difficult. There are only two flights coming in and out — one from Cairo and another from Abu Dubai which requires permission from the UAE. Technically a part of Yemen, the island has seen an influx of Emirate aid in recent years. The sole airport and port are run by the UAE, which was accused in early 2018 of attempting to disguise an annexation effort as a humanitarian one. Tensions between Yemen’s government and Abu Dhabi were calmed after Saudi Arabia brokered a deal between the Southern Transitional Council, the Yemeni separatist group that it backs, and the Yemeni government led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The deal resulted in the scaling back of military personnel on the island.
But the UAE presence is still tangible. As I passed newly minted villages, roads, and streetlights, I saw scores of UAE-tagged vehicles on the way to the English Language center.
(According to the Associated Press, fighting between the two factions erupted again late April after the Southern Transitional Council declared self-rule in southern Yemen last month, sparking brief clashes on Socotra and fears of new violence in the country already mired in more than five years of civil war and further threatening the survival of the dragon’s blood tree.)
Inside the city, motorcycles darted around traffic and bounced in and out of potholes the size of hot tubs. Trucks and vans stopped in the middle of the road as drivers conversed with friends or avoided collisions, and men shuffled past shuttered tourism offices, their cheeks swollen with quat. All of this was watched by goats, who gorged on the pink and blue plastic bags blanketing the roadsides and alleys.
Infrastructure was already an issue when the island was walloped by two cyclones within a matter of weeks in 2015. The storms battered Hadibo and left the majority of its some 20,000 residents displaced.
It also uprooted many adult dragon’s blood trees. Several residents point to the storms as the turning point in the island’s changing climate.
In Diksam, one of the residents, a tall man in a traditional Yemeni fouta, poured Ali and me a cup of tea. “The climate is not like before,” he said. It was Ramadan and he and his family had been fasting throughout the day, though he offered us a generous amount of bread. Children laughed and played in the distance while we made our introductions. Ali grabbed another handful of qhat from his bag.
The man’s name is Salem Keabany. He and his family are part of an effort by Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republic, to study the trees in a bid to stave off their decline. His village was built around 15 years ago and is the only one on the plateau equipped with electricity. We had passed a newly minted schoolhouse on the way in. “Before, we used to live in the caves,” Keabany told us.
Now, the village guards the entrance to one of the last remaining groves of dragon’s blood trees in the world. The village residents also care for a nursery of saplings planted to study the tree’s mortality and growth rates.
Keabany explained that the tree grows incredibly slow. “From 2006 up to now it comes up to here,” he said, motioning three to four feet above the ground.
According to researchers from Mendel University, the seedlings can take up to 100 years to grow high enough to escape the constant grazing of the local goats. This makes the dragon’s blood tree one of the slowest growing trees in the world.
“I haven’t found any in nature that are growing, but I think it’s mostly from the goats, from the animals,” Keabany said. “I saw a young dragon’s blood tree in a place where the goats cannot reach it, but I think it’s a place where it cannot grow big because there was no soil. Just rocks and cliffs.”
In the arid climate, the trees depend mostly on fog and a few days of rainfall each year for moisture. This means that the tree is vulnerable to fluctuations in precipitation, caught between long stretches of aridity punctuated by violent cyclones.
“When I was small it rained almost all year, but now it rains only two seasons,” said Keabany, turning to an empty space behind his home. “Here in the middle of our house there was a big dragon’s blood. We used to sit under it, but the storm took it.”
The trees currently occupy only 5 percent of their estimated habitat range, according to the research. “The prognosis is bad,” Hana Habrová, a co-author of the Mendel University paper, said over an email. “If no action is done and any intervention related to living customs of locals would not come, the trees will slowly decline to zero.”
As Keabany cares for the dragon’s blood tree, the question remains how to best move forward on an island in flux. Keabany explained that further development is sure to come to the island of Socotra, particularly once tourism returns after the war in mainland Yemen ends. Socotra’s beaches are too beautiful, its landscape too peculiar, and its people too welcoming.
But what form will that development take? And will it harm dragon’s blood trees and the culture that developed around them?
“I want [the country] to change and I want [my children] to be happy and have good accommodations but still keep their culture and traditions,” Keabany said.
Meanwhile, as Keabany and the rest of his village braces for change, he will continue to look after the last remaining dragon’s blood trees. “The trees are growing well but they need more care,” he said. “How can I save [them], how can I keep [them]?”