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Friends of Soqotra

Promoting the Soqotran Archipelago, 

Dr Sue Christie is an ecologist working for an environmental charity in Northern Ireland. She first visited Soqotra in January 2001, and has returned to the island twice since then to study plant ecology. She helped in the formation of ‘Friends of Soqotra’ and is currently its Secretary.

Island of Dioscorides, Island of Bliss, Isle of Tranquillity, Island of Mists, Galapagos of the Indian Ocean - just some of the names applied to Soqotra over the centuries which conjure up an image of beauty and mystery Recently designated as one of the ‘Global 200’ most important ecological regions on earth by WWF, Soqotra is home to a fascinating assemblage of plants and animals and to a unique cultural heritage.

Geological, climatological and biological factors have interacted to create unique habitats and species which make this island exceptionally important for biodiversity. The island offers classical examples of evolution in isolated environments and a high degree of endemic species found nowhere else on earth: plants and animals with beautiful and often bizarre adaptations. Although far less well known than other island groupings of similar importance - the Galapagos, the Canaries, Mauritius - it has also suffered far less degradation of its natural habitats. The degree to which the isolation of the islands has interacted with and helped to form the cultural traditions of the inhabitants means that until recently the local people lived in close harmony with their natural environment. It has not been an easy life by any means, with water shortages, a restricted and monotonous diet, limited medical care, little formal schooling and complete isolation for nearly half of the year due to the monsoons.

Now, however, things are changing. Over the past ten years a new airport, a small port and an asphalt road have been developed, there is an increasing variety and amount of imported food, the small hospital has been expanded and some new schools have been built. These changes are helping to improve the quality of life for many of Soqotra’s citizens, but the pace and scale of change means that much that makes the archipelago unique could be destroyed in just a few years by uncontrolled development compounding problems that already exist, such as non-regeneration of the dragon’s blood (Dracaena cinuehari) and frankincense (Boswellia) trees. There are already instances of local overgrazing, introduction of invasive alien species, and possibly even local extinctions. The marine environment in particular has suffered an alarming decrease in the number of sharks due to exploitation for the Chinese shark fin market. The challenge is to provide the benefits of sustainable development for the local populace without jeopardising the unique and fragile natural resources upon which they depend.

Adenium obesum socotranum, an endemic subspecies of a widespread African plant. The swollen stem is an adaptation to the harsh conditions of Soqotra seen in several endemic plants.

The islands inspire strong feelings in those who visit them; few come away unaffected and many wish to continue their relationship with the islands and their people. This is true of both scientists and the tourists who are beginning to visit the island. Tourism to date has been very limited but could make a small but important contribution to the local economy. However, tourism too can have its dangers and must be managed carefully if it is to make a sustainable contribution to the local economy and social system, without causing irreparable damage to the natural environment or the culture and traditions of the islanders.

A major study of the islands undertaken by the Global Environment Facility in 1997 recommended that one goal should be to: ‘Establish the Friends of Socotra, a non-profit making society of scientists, conservationists and students of both local and foreign origin, to strengthen exchange of scientific findings and conservation experiences, and co-ordination of activities of the islanders through newsletters, correspondence and functions’, a society that would support the Socotra Conservation Fund (SCF), the Government supported organisation recommended in the same document, to promote the sustainable development of the islands. Five years later, both the Friends of Soqotra (FoS) and SCF have been established.

FoS brings together people throughout the world who have an interest in the Soqotra archipelago. It was formed in 2001 at an inaugural meeting at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE) attended by over 40 people from eight countries. The distinctive rationale for FoS is that it brings together people with backgrounds in scientific research and those with a more general interest and develops the synergies between them. FoS was established to promote the sustainable use and conservation of the natural environment of the Soqotra island group, to raise awareness of the archipelago’s biodiversity and the unique culture and language of the islanders and to help improve the quality of life of the island communities and support their traditional land management practices.

During its first year FoS agreed a Constitution and translated it into Arabic, prepared a Membership Leaflet and held its first Annual General Meeting. It also engaged in protracted discussions with the Socotra Conservation Fund on the best way for the organisations to work together for the benefit of Soqotra. It was agreed that for the immediate future FoS should concentrate on raising awareness and developing its membership base and services, while SCF concentrated on obtaining funding for and delivering development programmes.

During 2003 FoS has produced the first issue of its Newsletter, Dioscorida, which provides information on FoS work, research projects on the islands, information on plants and animals and a bulletin board for events and activities related to Soqotra. The second issue of the Newsletter, to be produced in the autumn, will feature articles on archaeology and impressions made by the islands on a variety of visitors, plus details of the RBGE exhibition and the second AGM. The website, FriendsofSoqotra. org, has also been set up and provides information on the organisation and the islands, their natural history and cultural heritage, plus practical information on visiting. FoS has also been registered as a charity in England and Wales.

Promoting the islands to the wider public is a prime aim of FoS members. The best way for the advantages of development to reach the islands’ inhabitants while ensuring that the natural resources are accorded a high value by them, as well as the Yemeni Government and the international community, is to ensure that they are better known to the wider community. Environmentally benign tourism which provides direct benefits to the local people is one of the few avenues open to the islands for bringing in additional revenue. To encourage greater awareness, FoS members give talks, write papers, contact and bring together those with interests in the islands and promote the islands in a variety of ways.

The most exciting forthcoming FoS activity is assisting the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh in the creation of their major exhibition on Soqotra during the summer of 2005. This will run from June to October (including the Edinburgh Festival), and should attract some tens of thousands of visitors. The content is still under discussion, but will include a variety of stories displayed in creative ways illustrating the natural history and cultural heritage of the Archipelago. A major theme for the exhibition is change, demonstrating how the island’s people and biota have adapted to change over the long term and examining current threats and opportunities facing them. Positive approaches which build on traditions and knowledge will be identified. Concurrent events will include film shows, lectures and scientific seminars, and we hope you will be able to attend some of these.

If you would like more information, please visit our website at, or contact us by email:, or by post to Sue Christie (Secretary), 49 Carnbane Road, Lisburn, Northern Ireland, BT27 5NG. We would be delighted if you could join us and help in our efforts to promote the islands.

August 2003