Seeking to aid devastated Soqotra

Decades of international cooperation and conservation work on one of the world’s leading biodiversity hotspots have been dealt a major blow in the devastation caused by two cyclones on the Soqotra Archipelago. Now, as the slow recovery process gets underway, scientists at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) must wait until they receive news of how best they can help recovery efforts on the Indian Ocean islands.     

At least 14 people lost their lives and thousands more were left homeless when cyclones Chapala and Megh wreaked destruction on the islands earlier this month. While supporting the vital humanitarian efforts of the UK-based Friends of Soqotra, RBGE-based Centre for Middle Eastern Plants (CMEP) scientists are waiting to hear what practical help might be available for this UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, often referred to as "the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean" because of its exceptional biodiversity.

“The devastating impact of these cyclones resulted in loss of lives, countless injured, destruction of infrastructure, thousands of people displaced and huge ecological damage”, explained Dr Alan Forrest of CMEP, lead researcher on the current Leverhulme Trust-funded Conserving the Flora of Soqotra project. 

“At the same time, the archipelago’s unique environment has suffered greatly. In the wild, many iconic plant species have suffered serious damage, including broad stands of endemic frankincense trees (Boswellia sp.) and the endemic Dragon’s Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari) which is already under threat through lack of regeneration. The cyclones also damaged  important conservation resources such as Abdullah and Ahmed Hadeeb's small botanical garden nursery, which RBGE has supported over many years, with its ex situ conservation collections that are so vital to conservation efforts on the island”.

Dr Forrest paid tribute to efforts of the Friends of Soqotra, which is working with local and international agencies to take humanitarian aid to those most in need of direct help. The charity’s chairman Kay van Damme commented: “Small donations go a long way in Soqotra and we would like to thank everyone who has shown their support for our fundraising campaign.   This has the potential to make a huge difference”.

RBGE’s long-standing interest dates back to an expedition there by 19th century Regius Keeper Isaac Bayley Balfour who subsequently published the book Botany of Socotra in 1888. More recently, internationally-recognised experts Tony Miller and Miranda Morris produced the Ethnoflora of the Soqotra Archipelago in 2004. Today, the Leverhulme funding is allowing the RBGE scientists to look at what plant specimens from Soqotra are held at other key botanic gardens; review the  native species already known to grown on the islands and research the processes that have driven the evolution of its endemic species, then assess the potential for practical conservation strategies.

For more information on the Friends of Soqotra visit www.friendsofsoqotra.org and for the fund http://gogetfunding.com/soqotra-needs-our-help)/

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)