Saving the dragon's blood
Just after 4 a.m. on the Diksam Plateau, near the center of Yemen’s Socotra Island, a loudspeaker stirs the locals from their sleep with the day’s first call to prayer. A heavy fog drifts over the plateau, blotting out the stars, and a breeze ruffles a half-dozen green and blue nylon tents—sheltering American and European tourists who, like me, have come to the plateau to glimpse one of the island’s most iconic and otherworldly species: a strange, upside-down tree called the dragon’s blood (Dracaena cinnabari).
As the sun rises, the fog recedes, illuminating a small cluster of buildings standing in stark relief against the rugged, brown landscape—a two-story school building, several houses built of stone, and our campsite, about the size of a football field, encircled by a six-foot-high wall. To the west, a single paved road winds its way past the jagged Hajhir mountains toward the northern coast.
By 6 a.m. the village and campsite have begun to buzz with activity. Tour guides pour heavily sugared tea from plastic thermoses into paper cups; tourists pull on hiking boots and lather on sunscreen; goats and cows graze on sparse patches of grass and prickly shrubs. A group of female Russian tourists climb into a white land rover and head out for the day, swirling up dust as they drive out.
The campsite owner, Mohammed Salem Abdullah Masoud—better known by his nickname, Keabanni—kicks off his tan rubber sandals and sits beside me in a clearing in the campsite on a three-inch-thick foam mattress, one of the few pieces of furniture that many local Socotri people own. He is joined by his eldest son—Salem Mohammed Salem Abdullah, a tour guide and local conservationist, who is named in the local tradition of given name followed by the names of one’s father, grandfather, and great grandfather. Both wear sandals, t-shirts, and traditional skirt-like attire called foutas, and sit cross-legged as we eat a breakfast of tea, dates, and a pancake-like bread called malawah smeared with soft white cheese and honey. Keabanni, a boisterous and animated man in his mid-fifties, grows serious as he speaks of the remarkable dragon’s blood tree that grows on the island’s mountains and high plateaus and nowhere else on Earth. “The dragon’s blood tree is the heart of Socotra,” he tells me in the Socotri language as Salem translates.
When Keabanni was a child, his great-grandparents told stories of vast forests of dragon’s blood trees. Across the plateau, they said, there were so many trees that you could walk from the shade of one to the shade of another without the sun ever touching you. Like his parents and grandparents, they were nomadic pastoralists, moving from place to place to feed and water their cattle. “It was the Bedu lifestyle,” Keabanni explains, referring to the Bedouin ethnocultural group found across the Middle East and North Africa. At night, families set up camp around the trees, and during the day, the trees’ umbrella-shaped crowns of stiff, densely packed leaves cast perfect circles of shade and provided relief from the island’s intense mid-day sun. The bright red resin that seeps from the dragon’s blood trunk when it is cut was once a major commodity. Since at least the sixth century BCE, locals harvested the resin, ground it into a fine powder, and sold it to Greek, Arab, and Indian merchants who transported it around the world where it was used in paint and pottery glaze, make-up and nail polish, an ointment for cuts and scrapes, or as an elixir to treat anything from diarrheal disease to post-partum bleeding
In recent decades, however, the pressures of human activity and a changing climate have taken their toll. By the time Keabanni was old enough to understand the family stories, he could see that the vast forests of dragon’s blood trees were becoming scarce. They are even scarcer today. Until recently, there was little long-term monitoring of the species’ numbers, and it is not known precisely how many of the tress have been lost. But it is clear that their decline has had, and will continue to have, ripple effects across the island’s entire ecosystem, given its important role in providing habitat and water to other plants and animals. Some scientists predict that the species will experience a steep decline in the next 30 to 80 years, and may be gone altogether several centuries from now, or less. “The long-term future of this species is not hopeful,” wrote Petr Maděra, a professor of forest botany at Mendel University in the Czech Republic, in a 2019 paper he co-authored.
Keabanni, however, is not letting the trees go without a fight. For the past 20 years, his Diksam campsite has served as a sort of dragon’s blood conservation headquarters—a nursery and informal research center, with Keabanni leading a small-scale, locally driven project to stave off the tree’s demise.
By mid-morning the damp, cool air has given over to dry heat and scorching sun. Keabanni’s son Salem and I climb into a land rover—a decal of Sheikh Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, affixed to the back window—and set out for Firmhin, a plateau north of Diksam where dragon’s blood trees are still abundant.
Driving toward the outskirts of Diksam, we come across our first dragon’s blood, a lone tree on an expanse of barren, rocky soil a few feet off the dirt road. The tree is perhaps 15 feet tall, with a thick, ash-white trunk kinked in the middle, scarred from previous resin harvesting. At the top of the trunk, thick and scaly branches terminate in a crown of long, thin leaves that resemble a well-watered bluegrass lawn, stark green against the brown landscape and cloudless, azure sky.
Most trees draw water from the soil and up their roots to the leaves; dragon’s blood trees can also do the reverse, taking water from the air and passing it into the soil. Scientists suggest that the unique shape of the dragon’s blood tree is an adaptation to life in its arid environment, allowing the trees to capture moisture from the fog and clouds, a process called horizontal precipitation capture. Researchers estimate that each dragon’s blood tree can inject several times more water into the soil than the local environment captures as rainfall, providing a critical component of the island’s hydrological system. “One dragon’s blood tree brings a huge amount of water into the system,” explains Kay van Damme, a European researcher at Ghent University and Mendel University and the chair of the UK-based volunteer group, Friends of Socotra, who has worked on the island since the late 1990s. “If you lose a tree, you also lose hundreds of liters of water per year that would otherwise go into the system.”
And you also lose many other species that depend on dragon’s blood trees. Considered an “umbrella species,” not in reference to its shape but rather to the ecological role it plays, the dragon’s blood tree provides critical nourishment and helps support the survival of dozens of other plant and animal species—from geckos and snakes to endemic flowering plants. Over a few months in 2010 and 2011, a group of researchers from the Czech Republic catalogued the types and abundance of various plants found living in the understory of a dragon’s blood tree compared to open areas. Of 92 total plant species identified, 32 of them, including seven endemic species, were found to grow exclusively near dragon’s blood trees. In a separate study, researchers found that more than half of the island’s known reptile species could be found living on the dragon’s blood tree.
Driving on from the lone dragon’s blood, the trees start to become more abundant. We see three or four clustered together; then larger groupings. And then, across a deep gorge, the Firmhin Plateau comes into view. Thousands of dragon’s blood trees, a true forest, dot the rocky terrain.
We cross the gorge, ascend the Firmhin Plateau, and drive in among the trees. When the driver cuts off the engine, it is still and quiet. The forest climbs steeply uphill from the road, dragon’s blood trees and their circular shadows dotting the horizon in every direction. Yet something is still amiss. For every dozen or so living trees, there are several downed trees nearby, white trunks cracked in the middle, the massive crown toppled over, and the white, leafless branches like bones protruding up from the ground.
In Arabic, the dragon’s blood tree is known as dam al akhawain or “the blood of the two brothers.” According to local folklore, the first dragon’s blood tree grew in the very spot where two brothers, Darsa and Samha, fought each other to the death. But the spectacle and sheer size of the downed dragon’s blood trees calls to mind another origin story that holds that the trees sprouted from drops of blood shed by a dragon while it fought an elephant. In this particular spot, we are surrounded by corpses. The Firmhin Plateau is part forest, part dragon’s blood graveyard.
Two major factors are driving the dragon’s blood tree—and many of the species that depend on it—to the brink, according to scientists. Climate change is one. Socotra’s tropical desert climate has always been extreme: hot and arid with brief, twice-annual monsoon seasons. But in recent decades, dwindling rainy seasons have caused prolonged and severe droughts, and while mature dragon’s blood trees are adept at squeezing water from even the scant humidity in the air, the saplings must absorb moisture through their roots. With less moisture in the soil, the saplings struggle to survive to maturity.
In addition, extreme and unpredictable weather systems, likely fueled by warming oceans, have brought devastating winds and flooding to Socotra in recent years. In 2015, two cyclones, named Chapala and Megh, hit the island within one week of each other and wiped out some 30 percent of Socotra’s trees in what Clare Nullis, then of the United Nation’s Meteorological Organisation, called an “absolutely extraordinary event.” Many of the downed trees in the Firmhin forest were toppled in those two storms.
Overgrazing is also a key factor in the tree’s decline. In recent decades, the island’s goat population has exploded, due to poor animal management practices and an increase in the human population here, according to Maděra, who has worked on dragon’s blood conservation in Socotra since the early 2000s. Today, there are some 4 goats to every human on the island (estimated at approximately 100,000), he says, and they’re hard to miss. Goats are everywhere we go, in plain sight or bleating from the recesses of a valley or high in the mountains, eating everything in their path, including dragon’s blood saplings.
Most of the dragon’s blood trees in the wild today are likely hundreds of years old, though their exact age is impossible to calculate, because they have no rings in their trunks. There are few young trees anymore, however. Because of the deadly combination of destructive grazing and dwindling rains, it is now nearly impossible for baby dragon’s blood trees to grow in the wild. And without a younger generation to replace them, the current generation could be the last.
At 1,400 square miles—a three-hour drive from west to east; two hours north to south—Socotra is the largest of four islands in the Socotra Archipelago, located just over 200 miles off the southern coast of Yemen. The archipelago is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, nicknamed the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.” In addition to Socotra’s hundreds of land and sea birds, reef-building corals, and coastal fish, an estimated 37 percent of the island’s 825 plant species, 90 percent of its reptiles, and 95 percent of its land snails are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth.
Island ecosystems are famously biodiverse—islands make up only 5 percent of Earth’s total landmass, but host an estimated 17 percent of the planet’s known species. Yet these ecosystems are also fragile. Some 60 percent of the world’s known extinctions have occurred on islands, many linked to human colonization and expansion, along with a changing climate. To date, Socotra has been largely spared. “Socotra has not had big extinctions in the past,” explains van Damme.
Some researchers have proposed that the island’s poverty and geographic and political isolation may have prevented common drivers of species extinction, such as development, habitat fragmentation, deforestation, and the introduction of invasive species. Strategically located between the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, Socotra has over the years been occupied by or host to British, Portuguese, and Russian forces, whose rusted tanks still line the island’s northern coastline. But those occupations came and went. And in 1967—the same year that Keabanni was born in a mountain cave about 10 minutes from his current home in Diksam—the British relinquished colonial control of the southern half of what is now the Republic of Yemen. The new Yemeni government annexed Socotra as a protected military zone, restricting movement on and off the island, even for locals and the biologists who had, since the late 19th century, visited to catalogue the island’s unique flora and fauna. That isolation may in the end have protected Socotra from the ecological destruction common to other island ecosystems. It remained nearly impossible to visit Socotra until late 1990, when, after the brief 1994 civil war, southern and northern Yemen reunified and formed the modern-day state.
Van Damme also believes that Socotra’s nomadic pastoralist culture, which fostered a close connection between the people and their environment, may have helped keep the ecosystem intact. “That is why Socotra is really unique. What you see now is how many islands would have looked 300 or 400 years ago when there was still a chance to protect them,” he says.
But the island is changing. After its 1990 unification, the Yemeni government, with assistance from international aid groups and foreign governments, began upgrading the island’s infrastructure. A new road connected the capital, Hadiboh, to major villages along the northern coastline, including those on the Diksam Plateau, where Keabanni served as a guide and fixer for project workers. Schools and health facilities popped up across the island. In 1999, an international airport opened near Hadiboh; before that, visitors had to get there by boat. The opening of the island to outsiders ushered in a new wave of scientific research and conservation and ignited major cultural shifts, modernization, and urbanization.
Today, the UN Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies 157 plant species on Socotra as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered—and because many species on the island have not yet been identified or well-catalogued, there may be more at risk. This includes the dragon’s blood tree, which the IUCN classifies as a vulnerable species.
Teams are working to document declining tree species on the island. Salem works with the Mendel University research team on a species monitoring project to locate and measure individual dragon’s blood trees on the island, along with frankincense (Boswellia spp.) trees—whose resin is used worldwide as a fragrance for perfumes and soaps, and which looks, as a former U.S. consul-general once described it, like “an enormous sea-serpent in the act of shedding its skin.” When Salem comes across a frankincense or dragon’s blood tree, he pulls open a cell phone app, color coded to show the various species and subspecies, and looks to see if the tree has been recorded. If it hasn’t, he collects the tree’s GPS coordinates, measures the trunk’s circumference, approximates the tree’s height, and records relevant data such as the presence of pests or evidence of branch cutting or resin harvesting. When the survey is complete in the next few years, researchers should have a comprehensive baseline for every frankincense and dragon’s blood tree across the island.
The decline of frankincense trees is better documented than the dragon’s blood tree, because they grow faster and have more typical plant biology and physiology, such as tree rings documenting age. In 2020, a team of European researchers assessed the decline of one subspecies of frankincense trees in Homhil Nature Sanctuary, east of Diksam. In 1956, the researchers counted 1,187 Boswellia elongata trees there. In 2017, there were only 264.
Despite the grim statistics, however, van Damme is still optimistic that the trees, and Socotra’s larger biodiversity, can be saved. “This may be the only island in the world where we can actually stop it,” he says.
A few steps from the Diksam campsite and Keabanni’s home sits the nursery where, for the last 20 years, he and Salem have been raising dragon’s blood saplings that they hope will provide a future for the revered tree. Inside a 6-foot stacked-stone wall that surrounds the nursery, the saplings stand knee high in loose rows spaced a couple of feet apart. Nearly 20 years old now, they look more like spiky bushes than trees at this stage in their growth, big enough to capture horizontal precipitation but still too small to avoid falling victim to goats. Every few days, Keabanni walks over to the nursery to check for goat incursions, slipping in through a narrow net-covered gap in the wall and surveying the perimeter for damage, stopping often to restack crumbling sections of wall, adjust rope netting, and reinforce the barrier with sticks, scrap metal, even an old tin of powdered milk.
When Keabanni first met Maděra and van Damme, in the early 2000s, he was a rising leader in Diksam, in part because of his congenial personality, in part because of his role shepherding the road from Hadiboh to Diksam and his intimate knowledge of the island’s human and ecological communities. “He was a man who knew every tree on the island, every species,” Maděra recalls.
The scientists wanted to educate and engage locals in conservation efforts, encouraging them to convert pastureland into protected areas for struggling species, but hoping to avoid earlier, top-down approaches where scientists and NGOs from Western countries displaced and ignored local cultures and the basic needs of the community. “The only way conservation can work is if it is owned by local people,” says van Damme. “They are the experts knowing how to take care of their land, take care of their animals, take care of their plants, because they are living there.”
It was clear that Keabanni would be key to any locally grown effort to set aside land to help restore the dragon’s blood trees on Diksam. “He was willing to do it in his village,” Maděra says.
In 2006, Madera, van Damme, and Keabanni mapped out a conservation strategy for the trees. Together, they built the nursery and got to work studying the species’ biology. First, they had to learn how dragon’s blood trees grow and how to raise them in a nursery. They tried cutting off branches from mature trees and planting them in the ground, Keabanni recalls—a process that, when successful, is called propagation. But the branches withered and saplings failed to take root. When that effort failed, they collected and planted seeds from mature trees, experimenting with different watering regimes to see what techniques helped the trees grow and thrive. Through this a process of trial and error over the first couple of years, they learned the importance of watering a dragon’s blood tree every day for the first year or so, until each one could capture enough horizontal precipitation to sustain itself.
They also learned that dragon’s blood trees are exceptionally slow growing. In 2018, Maděra and a team of other scientists reported that dragon’s blood trees planted in nurseries grew, on average, only 2.65 centimeters—barely an inch—over a 5-year period. Based on that, they estimated it would take a sapling more than 100 years to grow tall enough to be clear of grazing goats.
In all, van Damme, Maděra, and Keabanni planted about 800 saplings within the nursery enclosure. The Mendel team provided the initial scientific expertise, technical assistance, tools, and funding to build the nursery and pipe water to it, while Keabanni worked day after day looking after the saplings and making sure grazing goats stayed away.
Today, the saplings no longer require regular watering, but Keabanni must still visit every few days to guard against the persistent threat of goats. He estimates that the animals have eaten about 200 saplings over the years, and almost all the 600 surviving plants have been gnawed at the ends. Fortunately, the saplings were too small to sustain damage from the 2015 cyclones, despite the collapse of the wall, which had to be rebuilt.
Once the saplings have grown tall enough to be out of reach of the goats, the dragon’s blood trees will be transplanted from the nursery to the wild. Given their slow growth rate, however, Keabanni knows he will likely never see the fruits of his labor. But perhaps his grandchildren will see a dragon’s blood forest once again in Diksam.
In 2008, UNESCO named the Socotra Archipelago a Natural World Heritage Site; other organizations recognize the island as part of the Horn of Africa Biodiversity Hotspot, a Centre of Plant Diversity, and an Endemic Bird Area. Ecotourists began to visit, and locals like Keabanni built campsites to host them. By 2010, some 4,000 tourists were visiting Socotra each year, providing a critical source of revenue for the island. But in 2014, a civil war erupted on the mainland, and in 2015, the Yemeni government halted all flights to the island, bringing both ecotourism and research there to a standstill.
That same year, the twin cyclones hit. Villages, hospitals, and other public infrastructure were flattened; fresh water and food were scarce. With the Yemeni government embroiled in war, the Emirati and Saudi Arabian governments stepped in to help. At first, the governments provided relief and reconstruction, but then their presence grew. They built schools, hospitals, and a fish processing plant. The Saudi government converted the island’s Environmental Protection Agency into a Saudi military base. The Emirati government erected cell towers, and today operates all three of the island’s petrol stations. In 2020, the Southern Transition Council, a secessionist group backed by the United Arab Emirates, retook control of southern Yemen, and military checkpoints cropped up around Socotra, soldiers lingering in the shade of tan, camouflaged tanks. Later that year, the Emirati government also began chartering direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Socotra, in a move to revive tourism on the island.
The unprecedented influx of foreign money has spurred an economic boom. “It is the Wild West of capitalism,” says Nathalie Peutz, an anthropologist who started working on the island in 2009. Locals are moving in droves from the countryside to Hadiboh; the city has grown dramatically in the past 5 years. Today, no part of the island’s capital is untouched by construction; half-built hotels and homes jostle for views of the coastline; poles and cinder blocks protrude from the tops of existing one-story homes to make way for a second level. Garbage lines the roadways; goats and Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus), a globally endangered species that is abundant on the island, rummage through.
The development hasn’t spared Diksam or Firmhin plateaus. After a week of exploring the island, I return to Diksam, where the heavy fog over the plateau has shifted into a brief, light rain. Keabanni and his family fire off WhatsApp messages to off-island family, friends, and researchers to announce the arrival of rain, however slight. The plateau is also abuzz with news about an Emirati-funded solar farm that would bring electricity to the plateau for the first time. Keabanni had been chosen to oversee the construction of a new stone wall that would encircle the panels, just a few minutes away from the dragon’s blood nursery.
I walk with Salem to the site of the future solar farm. “What do you think this place will look like in 10 years?” Salem asks me, waving his hand toward a barren strip of land beyond the nursery. “Maybe a supermarket and houses there,” he says. The Bedu lifestyle is disappearing, Keabanni had told me the day we first broke bread together, and with it the dragon’s blood tree. He wondered what else the island and its people might lose if the tree goes extinct.
From the solar farm site, Salem and I walk along a footpath carved between rocks and scraggly shrubs. The Hajhir mountains stand to our west, the campsite to the north, and beyond, the last dragon’s blood forest on the Firmhin Plateau.
We circle back to the nursery, slipping in again through the net that guards the gap in the thick stone wall. Inside, we inspect the saplings, examining their gnawed outer leaves and their thin, stiff inner cores, dotted with hundreds of tiny land snails—one of the many native species that depend on these trees for moisture and shelter. Perhaps these saplings will live here for another century, the lone future of a beloved species, growing centimeter by painstaking centimeter until they are big enough to survive in the wild. Perhaps Keabanni’s grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, will transplant them somewhere on this stark plateau. Perhaps these trees will one day make another forest.