ISLAND OF DRAGONS.... SOCOTRA
"Dioscorida is very large but desert and marshy, having rivers in it and crocodiles and many snakes and great lizards, of which the flesh is eaten and the fat melted and used instead of olive oil" - thus commented the author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a shipping manual written by an unknown Greek sailor in the first century AD. The island that he was describing was Socotra which today forms part of the Republic of Yemen and was, towards the end of 1993, the subject of a UNESCO fact-finding mission to consider the establishment of this unique island as a Biosphere Reserve.
Apart from some 19th century travel accounts and a few more recent expeditions, including a British joint-services and civilian expedition in 1967 (see Socotra: Island of Tranquillity, by Brian Doe, published by Immel Publishing, 1992) the Socotra archipelago has received relatively little attention from the scientific community, being virtually isolated from the rest of the world and effectively closed to foreign visitors for the last quarter century or so by a combination of military considerations and extreme natural conditions. The south-west monsoon, which kicks up high seas in the area from April to October, has created a physical barrier to access since earliest times. Even during the calmer periods landing there may still be difficult due to a combination of logistical problems, including the absence of adequate harbour facilities.
The crocodiles and giant lizards referred to by the author of the Periplus are no longer present there today. No fossils have so far been discovered but this is not to say that they did not exist. Indeed, the Indian Ocean crocodile survived right up to the 17th century AD when it was described by sailors visiting the Seychelles, which lie 1,600 kms due south. Such lost inhabitants apart however, Socotra remains, from a natural history viewpoint, one of the most fascinating places in the world. Its unique character is the result of a long period of isolation - its separation from Africa is believed to have occurred in the mid-Pliocene (approx six million years ago). As a result, many animals and plants that live today on Socotra are found nowhere else on earth. The very high degree of endemism is what makes Socotra such an important place in terms of global wildlife conservation. It is believed that some of the plants and animals found on Socotra are in fact ancient relicts of a much larger land mass which have been preserved here as a result of the fact that the Haghir massif has not been totally submerged for at least 135 million years. The absence of any indigenous mammals is further indication of the island's very ancient origins, presumably from a time before mammals appeared on earth.