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Soqotra's Misty Future

Less than 250 kilometres off the Horn of Africa lies the forgotten island of Soqotra, for centuries home to some of the world's most bizarre plants. Can the island join the 20th century without destroying itself, ask Diccon Alexander and Anthony Miller in the following text taken from an article originally published in New Scientist in July 1995.

Sharf Fishing Dhow: © Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh AFTER three days and nights cramped on a shark fishing dhow in the middle of the Indian Ocean, with little to do but eat seafood and contemplate the next tropical storm, the sight of Soqotra comes as a welcome relief. At first it is just a wisp of cloud on the horizon. A few hours later and the hazy outline of the island comes into view. Closer still and you are nearing the main settlement of Hadiboh, a parched town of squat stone houses set against towering granite mountains blanketed in cloud. It is then that you first glimpse some of Soqotra's bizarre and beautiful plants - cucumber trees shining in the sun on the foothills of the mountains, and along the jagged skyline the mushroom-shaped silhouettes of Soqotra's most famous plant, the dragon's blood tree.

This scene has changed little since the first scientific expedition in 1880. And the same skyline would have greeted the British botanist Quentin Cronk who "rediscovered" Soqotra ten years ago. Scientists hadn't set foot on the island in two decades believing mistakenly that the environment had been destroyed by overgrazing. In fact, lack of development means that Soqotra is much as it would have been in prehistoric times. "Soqotra is one of the few dry, tropical islands left which is still relatively untouched by modern development," says Alan Hamilton of the World Wide Fund for Nature. "It represents a particular type of gene pool, not really found elsewhere-a bit like an Indian Ocean version of the Galdpagos."

Haggier Mtns from Sea: © Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Isolation is the key to Soqotra's pristine environment. It is only 240 kilometres from the Horn of Africa, but because high winds and seas cut the island off for five months of the year, it is one of the most inaccessible places on Earth. Of the 850 plant species on Soqotra, over a third are unique. Many of these endemic species are remnants of ancient floras which long ago disappeared from the African-Arabian mainland. This weird vegetation makes Soqotra the tenth richest island in the world in terms of endemic plant species says the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. (What effects the number of species on an island? See the Island Lives inset on the next page.)