Socotra is a small archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean, near the Gulf of Aden. Situated some 250 miles off the coast of Yemen, the largest member of the archipelago, also called Socotra, is home to some of the weirdest looking plants that are found nowhere else on the planet. Like the Galapagos Islands, this island is teeming with 825 rare species of plants of which more than a third are endemic. Extremely high levels of endemism also occur in Socotra’s reptiles. 90% of its reptile species and 95% of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world. The marine life of Socotra is also very diverse, with 253 species of reef-building corals, 730 species of coastal fish and 300 species of crab, lobster and shrimp, and well represented in the property’s marine areas.
Some 250 million years or more ago, when all the planet’s major landmasses were joined and most major life-forms roamed freely from one region to another, Socotra already stood as an island apart. Ever since Socotra has been a breeding ground of birds, plants and animals. The isolation from other land masses meant whatever evolutionary process the flora and fauna underwent never spread to the mainland.
One of the most striking of Socotra's plants is the dragon's blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), which is a strange-looking, umbrella-shaped tree. Its red sap was thought to be the dragon's blood of the ancients, sought after as a medicine and a dye and today used as paint and varnish. Also important in ancient times were Socotra's various endemic aloes, used medicinally, and for cosmetics. Other endemic plants include the giant succulent tree Dorstenia gigas, Moraceae, the cucumber tree Dendrosicyos socotranus, the rare Socotran pomegranate (Punica protopunica), Aloe perryi and Boswellia socotrana.
Unlike the Galapagos, however, Socotra is significantly inhabited, and has been for some 2,000 years. More than 50,000 people now live on the main island of the archipelago. Fishing, animal husbandry, and the cultivation of dates are the primary occupations of the indigenous population.