Socotra, an enigmatic archipelago that was a part of Gondwana, became isolated when the larger continental plates drifted apart around 40 million years ago. Politically Socotra belongs to Yemen, but geographically it is located closer to Somalia and the African continent. This dual nature is also visible in the flora and fauna of the island(s) that show affiliations to both the Arabian as well as the African world. A total number of 31 species of reptile are known from the archipelago, 26 of which occur on the main island and namesake of the archipelago: Socotra. The other 5 species are found on the smaller islands of Abd al-Kuri, Darsa and Samha. Almost all of these species are endemic to the islands and can be found nowhere else on the planet. This extensive checklist on the herpetofauna of Socotra has been published by Edoardo Razzetti and his team and provides a very helpful summary.
Ever since I had been reading about this otherworldly island as a teenager I have been dreaming of visiting. However, the remoteness and the civil war on the mainland of Yemen prevented this dream from becoming reality. Then, in early 2020, the opportunity of flying via Cairo to Seiyoun and from there to Socotra opened up. In order to book the latter flight and arrange the necessary visa you need a local contact on the island, and while researching our options, we found the excellent Socotra Trek Tours led by Adnan Alnooby. We arranged a private herping tour, sent him an itinerary and wired the money to book our flights - and then the pandemic broke out. We had to cancel our trip, and it took us another three years before we were finally able to visit again. This time however, a new flight plan with a direct flight via Abu Dhabi (which leaves every Tuesday and Friday) made it even a bit easier to reach the island. Adnan arranged the visa and the new flights for us once more, and we were finally bound for Socotra!
Why did we choose to go in February / March? From June until September the high temperatures and strong winds make a stay on the island not very comfortable. From October to December the rains arrive, usually ending somewhere in February. Thus, we opted to go at the end of the rainy season. However, sadly for us, it hadn't been raining for over two months. Moreover, February and March are peak tourism season, as this is also the season for blossoming wild flowers and especially the likeable Bottle Trees. Also, the frequency of regular flights has picked up considerably after the pandemic, so in some places we didn´t find the solitude that I imagined. Luckily, avoiding other tourists is one of our specialties, and was made even easier because of the fact that most tourists are confined to ever the same places.
All images © Laura & Bobby Bok (unless stated otherwise)
27th/28th of February 2023
Laura and I traveled from Munich to Abu Dhabi and stayed in the comfortable Premier Inn Hotel at the airport. The next day we would fly from Abu Dhabi to Socotra. The flight to Socotra is not a regular one and not found online, nor at the airport at the screens with departure information. While asking around a bit, we found out we needed to report first at the unsigned desk 44/45 in terminal 1 for the flight verification, then we could proceed to the check-in desk. Luckily we already inquired the night before, so we didn't have any stress and we were almost first in line. After the other hoops and hurdles like security check and passport control we had a nice breakfast at the airport before finally boarding the plane to Socotra. It felt very surreal after all these years trying to reach the island!
Before we knew it, we landed on the island and were greeted by the first Bottle Trees at the airport. After a swift visa procedure, security check and collecting the luggage we had to wait for our guide to arrive. We had to wait for a few minutes, but then our new friends Yehya and Ali appeared. Yehya was our guide and translator, interested in botany and Justin Bieber and a natural talent for guiding tourists. Ali was our driver, cook, dancer, singer, smoke buddy and Jack of all trades. In the garbage strewn capitol of the island Hadiboh we stopped for lunch and supplies. We were way too excited to eat much, but in the early afternoon we were finally driving to our first location. Barely one hour on the island, Laura and I were sitting on the backseat chewing Qat, wearing a turban, listening to zither music and were gazing out over the ever-changing scenery.
28th of February until the 1st of March 2023
When we arrived at the Homhil plateau we were soon surrounded by the omnipresent Bottle Trees such as Desert Roses (Adenium obesum), goats and Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus) and also our first Dragon Blood Trees (Dracaena cinnabari). Accompanied by the setting sun, we hiked along a small stream down to one of the scenic highlights of the island. At the edge of the plateau there is a deep basin that holds water all year round. This forms a natural infinity pool with a dramatic backdrop of the steep descent towards the Arabian Sea and towering cliffs studded with Dragon Blood Trees. We had the place all to ourselves and enjoyed the refreshing dip before hiking back to camp. Ali had already set the table, and after a tasty meal we explored the surroundings of the campsite. We soon saw our first Arabian Half-toed Geckos (Hemidactylus homoeolepis) which were by far the most common reptile at night and a shy Socotran Bug-eyed Gecko (Hemidactylus inintellectus). In a nearby palm grove we spotted four Socotran Chameleons (Chamaeleo monachus). This endemic chameleon is of a very old lineage and the basal taxon to all other chameleons of the Chamaeleo chamaeleon species group (Macey et al. 2008). They are feisty creatures and readily hiss, gape their mouths and spread their occipital lobes upon disturbance. After admiring these angry Mickey Mouses we searched more in the wadi. Upon shining my light into the canopy of a Dragon Blood Tree I spotted a huge gecko looking down on us. Our first Socotra Giant Gecko (Haemodracon riebeckii) - and this one truly earns its vernacular name! The genus name of these geckos refers to the bizarre tree in which we found it, so that was also really cool. Later on we found another individual in a big palm and another scaling the smooth side of a big boulder.
The next morning I had a small stroll before breakfast and saw the two most common diurnal species of the island. The Socotra Rock Gecko (Pristurus sokotranus) is a small Pristurus species which is highly variable, but always has pale dorsolateral lines and is more ground-dwelling than its congeners. The Socotra Skink (Trachylepis socotrana) is by far the most common of the two skink species on the island. The major part of the morning we spent exploring the stream leading towards the infinity pool and we could add two more species to our list. Laura found a Blanford's Rock Gecko (Pristurus insignis) climbing a steep cliff in the shade. This species is usually found on big rocks although we also found them in vegetation. They are bigger than the other species of the genus, have longer limbs and have spotted backs without any stripes. Also the only Lacertid of the island was spotted: a Socotra Sand Lizard (Mesalina balfouri). Some interesting birds were out and about as well, such as Socotra Sun Bird (Chalcomitra balfouri), Socotra Sparrow (Passer insularis) Socotra Buzzard (Buteo socotraensis) and Somali Starling (Onychognathus blythii). After the heat became too much and other tourists started to pour in, we started to hike down the mountain where Ali had a tasty lunch waiting for us.
1st/2nd of March 2023
While driving east we could already spot the towering sand dunes of Arher Beach in the distance, appearing like a mirage. The powdery white sand looks like snow, and the combination with the clear turquoise water is breathtaking. We weren't the first to arrive at the spot and already many tourist groups had set up camp. Luckily we found a nice spot away from the crowds and close to one of the three freshwater springs. Before sunset I explored the beach and photographed the Ghost Crabs (Ocypode saratan). We had dinner with some very tasty seafood, fries and even the Socotri version of the Dutch oliebollen, Bohomri. Afterwards we explored the rocky habitats along the sand dunes but found surprisingly little. Only a few Arabian Half-toed Geckos (Hemidactylus homoeolepis) and two Shortfin Eels (Anguilla bicolor) in the springs.
Shortly after sunrise we got up and climbed the highest sand dune behind our tent to marvel at the stunning surroundings. Getting down certainly was much easier than going up, and after rolling down the highest dune I could roll on straight into the sea. Afterwards I washed of the salt in one of the clear freshwater springs, which was surprisingly warm and comfortable. In the meantime, Ali had another breakfast for champions prepared after which we were soon on our way again.
2nd of March 2023
Hidden at the end of a broad wadi is this stunning waterfall. Despite the dry conditions, there luckily was still enough water flowing to make sure we could have a very refreshing swim here, in which even Ali and Yehya joined in. We climbed the surrounding slopes in search of reptiles, but only found the omnipresent Socotra Rock Gecko (Pristurus sokotranus) and Socotra Skink (Trachylepis socotrana) as well as a slough from a Socotra Night Snake (Ditypophis vivax). We had lunch in the shade of the palms with the ever-present army of Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus) ready to devour all the leftovers. Back a the coast we stopped at an estuary to search for Fiddler Crabs (Cranuca inversa).
2nd/3rd of March 2023
In the late afternoon we arrived in Wadi Ayhaft, a wide canyon full of freshwater pools with stunning vistas on the surrounding Hagger Mountains. We found a great camping spot close to a cliff and, unbeknownst to us, a bee hive. Before we knew it, we were attacked by a swarm of angry bees. Running far and wide didn't prevent us from getting stung all over. After a recovery period, Ali gathered all his courage and retrieved the car. After picking a spot a bit away from the stinging insects, we flipped some rocks along the slopes in the last light of day. Only the ubiquitous duo of Socotra Rock Gecko (Pristurus sokotranus) and Socotra Skink (Trachylepis socotrana) were seen. The night search was not much more productive, but at least yielded many Arabian Half-toed Geckos (Hemidactylus homoeolepis) and a few Socotran Chameleons (Chamaeleo monachus).
The next morning we set out a bit deeper into the wadi and around every corner we were in awe of the beauty of this place. Herping was again not so rewarding, despite many stones turned, and only the species of the previous day were seen again. After a refreshing swim and a lunch in the shade we drove on to the next location. From the car we spotted several endemic birds, such as Socotra Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis uncinatus), Socotra Sun Bird (Chalcomitra balfouri) and Socotra Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis sokotrae).
3rd/4th of March 2023
A winding road brought us up from the lowlands to the Dixam Plateau. This is were dense stands of Dragon Blood Trees (Dracaena cinnabari) are to be found, along with many other endemic plants and animals. In the afternoon we searched in one of the wadis, but only found the two most common species. In the only place with some shade, Ali and Yehya were preparing our lunch under an overpass. Here we found out that the mice on the island leave rather impressive droppings... With the sun going down we explored the edge of the plateau which provided an impressive backdrop for the equally impressive Dragon Blood Trees. After a dinner with spicy noodles we explored the wadi again, where we found several gecko species, such as the very common Arabian Half-toed Gecko (Hemidactylus homoeolepis), the less common but widespread Socotran Bug-eyed Gecko (Hemidactylus inintellectus) and some more Socotra Giant Geckos (Haemodracon riebeckii). In a bush we found a Blanford's Rock Gecko (Pristurus insignis) and some more Socotran Chameleons (Chamaeleo monachus). We were scanning all the Dragon Blood Trees to find the endemic Dragon Blood Tree Gecko (Hemidactylus dracaenacolus) but despite our efforts we were not rewarded with a sighting of this critically endangered gecko.
The next morning I headed into the wadi once more to look for diurnal snakes at sunrise, while Laura set out to photograph the endemic flora. Despite my efforts I only found Socotra Rock Gecko (Pristurus sokotranus), Socotra Skink (Trachylepis socotrana), Socotra Sand Lizard (Mesalina balfouri) and a big Blanford's Rock Gecko (Pristurus insignis). It was still great to walk around in this beautiful landscape and enjoy the presence of many birds and insects. After breakfast our journey across the island continued.
4th/5th of March 2023
A steep and bumpy road brought us from the plateau down into the ravine. Steep rocky walls dotted with Bottle Trees and topped with Dragon Blood Trees were towering high above us, while the watercourse inside the ravine was lined with stands of Date Palms. Another breathtaking place to explore was waiting, and soon we ventured deep into the gorge. Reptile-wise, only the ubiquitous duo of Socotra Rock Gecko (Pristurus sokotranus) and Socotra Skink (Trachylepis socotrana) was present, but the birding was a bit more rewarding. We had good views on endemics such as Socotra White-eye (Zosterops socotranus), Socotra Buzzard (Buteo socotraensis) as well as Bruce's Green Pigeon (Treron waalia). This place was also well suited for swimming and we thoroughly enjoyed a refreshing dip and relaxing in the sun. After a lunch in the shade of the palms we drove up the other side of the wadi, up to Firmihin Forest which has the densest stands of Dragon Blood Trees on the island. Despite this place being out of this world, we couldn't enjoy it as much as we should have with many other visitors setting up camp here. We walked around for a few hours and decided to change our plans. For Ali and Yehya it wasn't a problem to drive back down again, so that is what we did. We set up camp inside the wadi instead, which we had all to ourselves. After some easy German dishes we explored the wadi in the dark. Immediately we saw many Arabian Half-toed Gecko (Hemidactylus homoeolepis) but could also finally photograph a Socotran Bug-eyed Gecko (Hemidactylus inintellectus). Several rock gecko species were active and besides the big rock dwelling Blanford's Rock Gecko (Pristurus insignis) and the small ground dwelling Socotra Rock Gecko (Pristurus sokotranus), we also found the arboreal Guichard's Rock Gecko (Pristurus guichardi). High in a tree we spotted another Socotra Giant Gecko (Haemodracon riebeckii) and with all this snake food out and about it was about time we finally found a snake. While scanning the scree slopes, Laura suddenly spotted a small brown snake. We were elated to finally having found a living snake on the island. A good choice to change camps last-minute! When we found it, the little snake was laying in ambush, very much like a viper would do, suggesting that the Socotra Night Snake (Ditypophis vivax) might very well occupy the niche of a viper on the island.
The next morning we again checked suitable places for diurnal snakes, but only the usual suspects were found.
5th/6th of March 2023
We had a hard time saying goodbye to the mountains and the fabulous Dragon Blood Trees. The scenery is just unbelievably beautiful here and we knew the temperatures (and our chances of finding new reptile species) would be less agreeable in the lowlands. So late in the morning we set out and drove down past dromedary camels and tanks, the latter having been left behind when the soviets supported the communist movement of South Yemen back in 1980.
Ali and Yehya dropped us off north of Qalansiyah, and from there we made our way to the camp on foot. The views on the Detwah Lagoon were already stunning and on the rocks close to the water we even discovered a new reptile species for us. The Abd al Kuri Rock Gecko (Pristurus abdelkuri) is endemic to Abd al Kuri (what a suprise!), but can also be found around Hadiboh and Qalansiyah - probably the result of a recent accidental introduction. Very interesting to see these diminutive little lizards searching for food in the intertidal zone between crabs, although they were much more shy than the other species of rock gecko. After a hot walk across the sandy plain towards the camp we had lunch. In the afternoon we set out to explore the lagoon and hopefully see some of the animals that live there. We weren't disappointed. Without too much effort we saw Long-spine Porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus), Birdbeak Burrfish (Cyclichthys orbicularis), Reticulate Whipray (Himantura uarnak), Cuttlefish, Sea Cucumbers, Sea Hares and we ran into a couple of boys hunting for Swimming Crabs for dinner. With the sun setting the towering cliffs on fire, we also dipped our toes into the art of catching crabs, discovering we were not that bad at it actually. After another great meal prepared by Ali we explored the hills around the lagoon, but despite the promising looking conditions we only found Arabian Half-toed Geckos (Hemidactylus homoeolepis) and a Socotran Fat-tailed Scorpion (Orthochirus insularis).
The next morning we hiked up to one of the most legendary viewpoints on the island from where you can admire the entire Detwah Lagoon. The hike was steep and very hot. Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus) and Socotra Sun Birds (Chalcomitra balfouri) accompanied us on the way up, and so did the ever present Socotra Rock Geckos (Pristurus sokotranus), Socotra Sand Lizards (Mesalina balfouri) and Socotra Skinks (Trachylepis socotrana). After marveling at the otherworldly scenery at the top for quite a while, we hiked down and I went for a swim and snorkeling-session close to Qalansiyah. I wasn't expecting to see much, but I was positively surprised. Lined Surgeonfish (Acanthurus lineatus), massive Emperor Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator), Cerulean Damselfish (Pomacentrus caeruleus), Painted Moray (Gymnothorax pictus) and my all-time favourites, Rockskippers (Alticus kirkii), were seen among many others. After lunch we shortly visited the town of Qalansiyah and admired all the different handcrafted and painted doors this town is famous for. Along the way to Hadiboh we had one final attempt to find diurnal snakes, but only saw the common reptiles and Socotran Long-billed Pipits (Anthus similis sokotrae).
6th/7th of March 2023
Back we were in the hustle and bustle of city life. We relaxed a bit at the Socotra Tourist Hotel, had a shower and organized our luggage before setting out for dinner together with Adnan, Yehya and Ali. In a beautiful stand of Date Palms outside the city we tried to find Socotra Scops Owl, but only found more Arabian Half-toed Geckos (Hemidactylus homoeolepis) and a beautiful Socotran Chameleon (Chamaeleo monachus). At the gravel plains outside the city we hoped to find some new geckos to us, but again found only the usual suspects, as well as three Socotra Giant Geckos (Haemodracon riebeckii). At a dumpsite we did stumble upon a graveyard for Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta) which are being brought ashore here and slaughtered for their meat. Such a sad sight to see these animals who were in the prime of their lives, laying amongst plastic bags and diapers. Here we also ran into the Socotri police who were having "Socotri whiskey" in the dark and must have had quite a few already. They insisted we join in and of course we were a little curious to try what they were having. Not sure what it was - certainly not whiskey - but it seemed to have gotten them in a party mood. They did offer us a ride back to the hotel and in the party police car there was a lot of dancing and singing going on. Still a bit bedazzled from this odd experience I searched a bit for geckos around the hotel and found a few very shy Red Sea Geckos (Hemidactylus robustus) hiding behind a power outlet and several Yellow-bellied Geckos (Hemidactylus flaviviridis) on the walls of the hotel. Both of these species are probably recent introductions to the island and can be found mainly in Hadiboh.
The next morning after breakfast, Ali and Yehya brought us to the airport. We would have gladly stayed for another week, touring the island with our new friends and trying to find more endemic species but sadly it was time to go. After passing the three checkpoints at the airport (at a mere 100m) and three security checks (that seems a bit much) we were waiting for the plane to Abu Dhabi and from there on, back home.
It was very hard for Socotra to live up to the expectations we had of the island. But it sure did! The moment we arrived on the island we felt at home. Everywhere we went we were greeted with a smile and people were extremely friendly and hospitable. It is right up there with Iran in that sense. Although reaching the island is still not so straight forward as many other destinations on the planet, it is a little easier nowadays and the traveling on the island itself was pretty easy-going. We had sent our itinerary to Socotra Trek Tours, and if we wanted to make some adjustments in-situ, that wasn't a problem. Whenever we found out specific habitats didn't look that promising or if certain places were rather crowded, we could just choose another spot to set up camp.
The herping on the other hand was less effortless. Socotra surely is an island that doesn't reveal its secrets easily. Because we only had one week on the island (which is much too short!), we had to focus on certain targets. We set a route which would allow us to see 23 species, leaving out some species of the south coast, highlands or offshore islands. While marvelling at the otherworldly landscapes we searched relentlessly for reptiles, but were struggling with the hot and dry conditions we experienced on the island. A different time of year and an extra week surely would have led to additional findings. That being said, local people also shared our sentiment and all of the people we asked about snakes didn't put up the usual story "that snakes are everywhere" I often hear in other parts of the world. Instead, they all said that they rarely see snakes and seemed to know the species quite well. They were able to point out in our printed pictures which species are common and which are not. But all in all, we found a very nice, representative array of species on the island and got to see three out of four main-targets we had.
Unfortunately, there are some challenges ahead for the island. After the pandemic, tourism increased much faster than the available infrastructure could keep up. We were surprised how full with people the plane to the island was and how many different tour-operators there are. All these tourists visit the same spots which, on the one hand, confines the effects, but on the other hand also puts a lot of pressure on certain places. The pristine sand dunes of Arher or the forest of Firmihin were littered with trash all around the campsites. And with toilet facilities absent, people go into the dunes or between the endangered trees to answer nature's call. Designated campsites with proper facilities would alleviate the pressure on the ecosystem. The pristine stream at Homhil was covered in a layer of sunscreen after a tourist group of around 30 people came by, all to make their selfies in the infinity pool. It would be wise to make tour-guides aware of these effects on the ecosystem so they can instruct their clients accordingly. No hotpants, no tanktops, no sunscreen, just long sleeves and you will be fine. Trash is a very big problem and no matter where you go, there will be trash laying around. Usually with some goats standing around it, nibbling on tissues or plastic bags. For more information on the island and also specifically about the threats to the ecosystem I refer to this excellent booklet from UNESCO. The island is a true marvel which hopefully can be preserved for many more years.
For more pictures from our trip, have a look at Laura's Flickr Album.
Socotran Chameleon (Chamaeleo monachus)
Socotra Giant Gecko (Haemodracon riebeckii)
Yellow-bellied Gecko (Hemidactylus flaviviridis)
Arabian Half-toed Gecko (Hemidactylus homoeolepis)
Socotran Bug-eyed Gecko (Hemidactylus inintellectus)
Red Sea Gecko (Hemidactylus robustus)
Abd al Kuri Rock Gecko (Pristurus abdelkuri)
Guichard's Rock Gecko (Pristurus guichardi)
Blanford's Rock Gecko (Pristurus insignis)
Socotra Rock Gecko (Pristurus sokotranus)
Socotra Sand Lizard (Mesalina balfouri)
Socotra Skink (Trachylepis socotrana)
Socotra Night Snake (Ditypophis vivax)
Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta) - many dead individuals
Many thanks to Jonathan Newman, Edoardo Razzetti & Vojtech Vita.