Saving the dragon’s blood: how an island refused to let a legendary tree die out

A unique species on Socotra in Yemen, famed for its bright red resin and umbrella-shaped crown, has been in decline for years. Now islanders are leading efforts to save it

by Jess Craig

The dragon’s blood tree is classified as a vulnerable species on the IUCN red list. Photograph: Neil Lucas

Just after 4am on the Diksam plateau, near the centre of Yemen’s Socotra Island, a loudspeaker stirs local people from their sleep with the day’s first call to prayer. A heavy fog drifts over the plateau and a breeze ruffles a half-dozen green and blue nylon tents sheltering American and European tourists who have come 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 that form the village, the campsite and, to the west, a single paved road winding its way past the jagged Hajhir mountains toward the northern coast.

By 6am the village is buzzing with activity. The campsite owner, Mohammed Salem Abdullah Masoud, known as Keabanni, sits in a clearing on a foam mattress. He is joined by his eldest son, Salem Mohammed Salem Abdullah, a tour guide and conservationist. Both wear sandals, T-shirts and traditional skirt-like attire called foutas, and sit cross-legged eating a breakfast of tea, dates and a pancake-like bread called malawah smeared with soft white cheese and honey. Keabanni, who is in his mid-50s, is talking about the remarkable dragon’s blood tree that grows on the island’s mountains and high plateaux 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 says, referring to the Bedouin ethnocultural group found across the Middle East and north Africa.