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Dragon's Blood And Cucumber Trees? Near Troubled Yemen, Strange Socotra

Yemen has been in the news more and more lately — and is now considered to be "the greatest external threat facing the U.S. homeland in terms of terrorism," investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill told Terry Gross on Fresh Air last week.

Bad news for just about everyone — except, perhaps, for the lizards on Socotra, a small archipelago off the coast of Yemen. Security issues have all but halted development on these four little islands that rank "among the world's most important centers of biodiversity," according to National Geographic's June issue.

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    A full moon rises over the Diksam Plateau, where dragon's blood trees grow in scattered groves. The limestone of Socotra's interior plains formed when ancient seas covered the land.
    Michael Melford/National Geographic
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    Ancient periods of volcanic activity built the Hajhir Mountains, where rugged granite peaks rise to nearly 5,000 feet. Nightly clouds provide moisture for plant life that's among the most diverse in Asia.
    Michael Melford/National Geographic
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    Dragon's blood forests are nearly devoid of seedlings and young trees. Some scientists blame a lack of water caused by a decrease in seasonal cloud cover — and predict that many stands could disappear within a century.
    Mark W. Moffet/National Geographic
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    A desert rose anchors itself on the Maalah cliffs, in the company of more than 300 other rare plant species on Socotra. In the distance lies Qulansiyah, one of the island's largest towns.
    Mark W. Moffet/National Geographic
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    A wadi, or seasonal creek, meanders seaward among ridges of the Hajhir Mountains. Though most of the mountains' granite is reddish, a covering of lichens makes some rocks appear white.
    Mark W. Moffett/National Geographic
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    The desert rose got its name from its blossoms, though the plant is not related to cultivated roses. Herders tie strips of the poisonous bark around the necks of young goats in an effort to protect them from marauding feral cats.
    Mark W. Moffett/National Geographic

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Though I'd love to see it personally, I came across a lot of Socotra's surreal wildlife last month while doing a post about remarkable trees for Arbor Day. Among the stranger flora: gnarly cucumber trees, inverted-umbrella-looking dragon's blood trees, and desert roses, which writer Mel White describes as looking "as though a much taller tree had simply melted in the heat."

White says that the island has remained somewhat off the radar for centuries, though it has always been a pit stop for frankincense and sap from the dragon's blood tree — until recently.

"The number of endemic plant species (those found nowhere else) per square mile on Socotra and three small outlying islands is the fourth highest of any island group on Earth," writes White. "Every vista on Socotra, from the hot, dry lowlands to the mist-shrouded mountains, reveals wonders seen nowhere else."

But the view from many of those vistas now shows unfinished roads and abandoned construction — traces of development that started before the disruptions in Yemen. Who knows if it will pick back up when things settle down on the mainland? If, that is, they settle down.

Again, according to Scahill, we might have bigger fish to fry.

See more photos at National Geographic.

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