Treasure Trove of Life


Around 150 miles east of the Horn of Africa and 300 miles south of the Arabian Coast, in the Arabian Sea, lies a treasure trove of life found nowhere else in the world. The islands of the Socotra archipelago became separated from each other, and from any other land mass about 16 million years ago, isolating its fauna, flora and funga. As a result, Socotra has an unusually high number of endemic species – those that are found nowhere else in the world. Because of this, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. 

Around the size of Long Island, New York, Socotra is the largest island of the Socotra archipelago and is officially part of Yemen. While rich in unique species, it is not rich in freshwater ecosystems. Of the few there are, many of them are ephemeral, meaning they dry up for parts of the year. But these freshwater ecosystems are highly threatened by many factors, including droughts, water extraction, habitat loss, pollution and the effects of invasive species. Yet for the same reason that Socotran species overall are unique, the island’s freshwater biodiversity is one-of-a-kind and vital, too. Species such as the Socotra bluet Azuragrion granti (a dragonfly species listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) and the Socotra Freshwater Crab Socotrapotamon socotrensis (listed as Least Concern more than ten years ago, an assessment that urgently requires updating) are considered important indicator species for freshwater health. They are also local “flagship” species for freshwater, as they are well known locally in Socotra. 

This month, Dr. Kay Van Damme from the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s (SSC) Freshwater Conservation Committee, traveled to Socotra to kick off a project to conserve the island’s freshwater biodiversity. In field investigations over the last ten years, Dr. Van Damme has documented that many of the sensitive creeks on the island have been chemically contaminated as a result of malaria prevention exercises, and this has caused the decline of endemic freshwater species in the island’s small wadis. More generally, Kay’s work has shown dramatic declines in some of the island’s surface water systems and in the abundance of freshwater species.  

Kay is a freshwater crustacean taxonomist associated with Ghent University (Belgium) and Mendel University (Czech Republic). He is passionate about freshwater invertebrates and their conservation. Aside from his role as a member of the SSC’s Freshwater Conservation Committee, Kay has chaired, for the last ten years, the charity Friends of Socotra which supports small, on-the-ground conservation projects. Kay became a lifelong friend of the island when he first visited in 1999 as part of an UN-led biodiversity expedition. Since then, he has become progressively more involved in the conservation of the island’s biodiversity. Now visiting once to twice a year, he conducts both survey and conservation work while developing awareness with local communities and local decision-makers on the amazing and unique freshwater biodiversity in the Socotra archipelago and the importance of conserving these species. Working closely with – and learning from – the local Soqotri communities is an essential part of Kay’s work.  

In 2022, Kay – as part of the SSC Freshwater Conservation Committee – was awarded a small SSC Internal Grant to support his work on the conservation of freshwater biodiversity in Socotra. While on the island this month, he is working with local NGOs and communities to develop awareness workshops, and he will be implementing field surveys to collect data on the distribution of freshwater species and the threats to them. Those data will be especially important for increasing knowledge of up to 25 freshwater species listed on the IUCN Red List, updating the information included in the Red List, and supporting subsequent conservation planning and conservation action. For example, the Socotra Noged freshwater crab (Socotrapotamon nojidensis) was listed as Data Deficient on the Red List in 2008, because it was known from only a single locality on Socotra Island and was last collected in 1999. Further information on this species is urgently needed. Indeed, given the threats observed by Kay impacting freshwater systems on the island, updating what we know about the extinction risk of these species is vital to allow efficient conservation planning. Dr. Monika Böhm (Freshwater Conservation Coordinator for the Global Center for Species Survival at Indianapolis Zoo), and Dr. Ian Harrison and Prof. Topiltzin Contreras MacBeath (co-Chairs for the SSC Freshwater Conservation Committee) will be assisting Kay in the data analysis for the Red List.  

Kay will be conducting fieldwork in the wetlands of the north coast of Socotra, which are ecologically very important but are unprotected and under great pressure. He will also be working in Yemen’s only Ramsar Site, Detwah Lagoon. A Ramsar site is a wetland designated as a Wetland of International Importance based on certain criteria set by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The Ramsar Convention – an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands signed in 1971 – recognizes 2,466 Wetlands of International Importance around the world. The Ramsar Convention’s mission is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.” 

Kay’s visit to Socotra coincides with the Ramsar Convention’s 14th Meeting of the Conference of Contracting Parties (COP), which was held last week in Wuhan, China and Geneva, Switzerland. At this COP, government representatives of the countries that have signed on to the Convention met to agree on a work program for the next three years and how it will be funded. They also discussed guidance on various environmental issues relating to wetlands. It is an important event that can shape policy on wetlands. While this COP was looking at wetland conservation through a global policy lens, it is closely linked to work on the ground, such as the biodiversity monitoring work and awareness raising that Kay is conducting in Socotra. Encouraging for wetland conservation in Socotra is the fact that Yemeni representative Ahmed Saeed Suleiman (the focal point for Ramsar in Yemen) attended the COP to give a presentation on Wetlands in the Socotra Archipelago and the need for their conservation 

Additionally, delegates to the COP discussed several draft resolutions which will guide the way on wetland conservation. One of these resolutions focuses on “enhancing the conservation and management of small wetlands.” It encourages the signatories of the Ramsar Convention (national governments) to develop national plans to promote the conservation of their wetland biodiversity, and the maintenance of their ecological, cultural and social values. Kay’s ongoing work on Socotra’s small and ephemeral wetlands is immediately relevant to this draft resolution.  

One of Kay’s objectives for his project is to work with local communities to carry out cleaning campaigns and installation of visitor registers and signage at some of Socotra’s wetlands, and this will include the Detwah Lagoon Ramsar site. This will also improve local engagement and connection to freshwater habitats. Kay already started some initial clean-up work with a group of volunteers this week, although current monsoons present a challenge. It will be easier in a few months when Kay conducts some awareness-raising workshops in collaboration with local partners and authorities. 

For updates on Kay’s important work on Socotra and the wonderful and unique species he finds there, follow @ProtectSpecies and @FW_conservation on Twitter. Images are courtesy of Kay Van Damme. 

This blog was a collaboration between experts with the IUCN SSC Freshwater Conservation Committee and the Global Center for Species Survival. 

Published November 16, 2022

Monika Böhm, Ph.D.

Dr. Monika Böhm is the Freshwater Conservation Coordinator for the Global Center for Species Survival.

Learn more about freshwater conservation and Monni.