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calendar   Tuesday - July 05, 2011

Not Exactly Port Royal Jamaica

Somali Pirates Using Socotra Island As Pit Stop

File this one under “Well duh, no kidding”, but the island itself is rather fascinating.

15-23 million years ago, when the Red Sea was barely even a river, and the Himalayas were just little hills, the island of Socotra was already old. And lonely. Situated 150 miles past the very point of the Horn of Africa, and 200 miles south across the Arabian Sea from Yemen, Socotra is one of the closest Ends of the Earth, but also one of the least accessible. High seas and Monsoons make it hard to get to, and for the longest time there hasn’t been all that much there. It is not a volcanic island but a continental one, a tiny piece of Africa lost at sea, riding the very edge of the African plate as it twists away from the Arabian plate. This is the land where the Dragon’s Blood Tree still thrives, and one of the most alien looking places on the entire planet.

image

It is also home to the lowly begonia, a flower whose worldwide popularity began with a single flat of them taken by botanists when Victoria reigned.

Halfway up the rocky path to the ancient cave, I had a sudden glimpse of how the world must have looked twenty million years ago. Stark against the skyline was a strange mushroom-shaped growth about fifteen feet tall, with tangled branches and a canopy of spiky green leaves. It was a dragon’s blood tree—born, according to legend, from blood shed in a battle between an elephant and a dragon. In a distant age, ancestors of the tree (botanists tell us that it is in the same taxonomic order as lilies and tulips) carpeted the earth from Russia to Morocco.

Those great forests are long vanished. But here on the island of Socotra, bounded by the Arabian Sea to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south, the dragon’s blood still mantles the high plateaus and the misty valleys, hidden between the crags of the Hajhir Mountains.

Since the earliest times, people have known Socotra as a place apart. Herodotus wrote that this was where the immortal phoenix came to be reborn twice every thousand years. The frankincense burned in the temples of ancient Egypt and Greece grew here, guarded, so it was believed, by flying snakes.

The island isn’t unknown, there just isn’t any great reason to go there. It’s been known about forever. Literally.  While Lucy was down in Olduvai Gorge grubbing around for ... grubs, her cousin Ricky and his friends built themselves a sailboat and set off over the eastern horizons, getting the hell out of Africa ASAP. First stop, Socotra Island. 1.4 million years ago.

Human ancestors left Africa not only by land but also by sea, recent findings of Russian archeologists on Socotra island show.

image

Homo habilis: Sinbad the First

Russian scientists found stone artifacts, which belong to Oldowan culture and date back 1.4 million years. The main sensation is geography the Socotra island, now belonging to Yemen, is located in the Gulf of Aden 200 km away from the closest point on the African coast, and Oldowan culture originates from Tanzanian Olduvai Gorge.

Now the challenge is in understanding how Oldowan stones, which belonged to Homo habilis, arrived to Socotra. No anthropologist has even been so brave to imagine that this ancient half-monkey-half-human being could not only follow antelopes, but also travel to neighbouring islands by sea.

However, large amount of discovered stones indicates that ancient men were natural-born sailors. Socotra had been an island long before the stones appeared there, so human ancestors couldn’t have got there by land.

Yup, they had to get there on boats. Through rough seas. Even when Ice Ages lowered sea levels, the water is just too deep. It’s way too far to swim. And that’s about the most exciting thing that has ever happened there. Ever. No wars, no great military campaigns, no heroes, no fabled golden cities. Just a few people living there, getting by with a bit of fishing and a bit of date farming, doing a bit of trading with the rare ship that stops by. Since forever. The greatest claim to fame Socotra has is it’s singular biodiversity; more than a third of the plants and animals on the island are indigenous and exist nowhere else on earth. Even the people there are linguistically and genetically isolated from the rest of the world. It’s no garden of paradise, but the 80 mile long island is home to about 45,000 inhabitants. After eons of isolation, Yemen put in an 11,000 foot heavy duty runway in 1999, and now Socotra is somewhat open to the world. 12 years later though, and there is still barely any tourist industry, even though the rough-hewn island enjoys a more temperate climate than the desert lands to the north and west, has a large network of ancient and interesting caves in it’s windswept karst cliffs, and all that unusual flora and fauna. Maybe it’s because the island only has two roads.

So much for the travelogue. Today that bit of trading means supplying the Somali pirates, and that nice runway with it’s daily flights to the mainland has people thinking that they’ve discovered something like a Missing Link; an information and finance channel that links pirate activity back to mainland sources in the more “civilized” world. As if Yemen counts as civilization.

LONDON (Reuters) - Somali pirates have been using Yemen’s remote Horn of Africa island of Socotra as a refueling hub enabling their attack craft to stay restocked for longer periods at sea and pose a greater hazard to shipping, maritime sources say. Despite an international naval presence in the region, seaborne gangs have been exploiting political turmoil in Yemen to pick up fuel, and possibly other supplies including food, sources told Reuters.

“Socotra has been used for months if not longer,” said Michael Frodl, with C-LEVEL maritime risk consultancy and an adviser to Lloyd’s of London underwriters, citing intelligence reports he was privy to. “It is perhaps the most important refueling hub for hijacked merchant vessels used as motherships, especially those operating between the Gulf of Aden and India’s western waters, mainly off Oman and increasingly closer to the Strait of Hormuz.” “A hijacked merchant vessel, unlike a hijacked dhow, has a voracious thirst for fuel and needs a very well stocked refueling station,” Frodl said.

A Yemen government official said authorities around a month ago had captured 20 people believed to be pirates on the island and handed them over to authorities in Yemen’s nearby southern port city of al-Mukalla on the mainland. A source said separately the 20 people had been on a regular commercial ship, but added that 16 Somali pirates were taken into custody in recent days and were being detained on Socotra.

“There was a lot of piracy north of Socotra during the north east monsoon and it is likely they have been using the island,” the source said. “Pirates use the beaches on the mainland not too far from Mukalla to collect fuel, and presumably other equipment.”

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) watchdog said the pirate support systems had to be promptly stopped.

“Socotra is strategically located because it is right up there against the Gulf of Aden and also along the eastern seaboard of Yemen,” said IMB director Pottengal Mukundan.  “If it is true that the pirates are using Socotra, then it is an extremely disturbing development and it requires immediate investigation.”

I have hardly run any Somali pirate stories in the past couple of months, because there really haven’t been any. Between the rough seas of the monsoon season and the seemingly universal defensive steps taken by large merchant ships, the Somali pirates are about 0-30 in their hijacking attempts. Every time they get near a ship they get shot at, and if they’re so fortunate as to get a ladder up the side of one they get hung up on the coils of razor wire that guard the decks. Losing! It’s just not working any more. Or at least right now. Good! Effective piracy still occurs far to the east in Indonesia, though that’s mostly robbery instead of hijacking, and now West African piracy is ramping up mugging ships off the coasts of Benin, but the Somali pirates are all ... at sea. Gee, too bad.

I’d hate to see war come to Socotra Island. That probably won’t be necessary. Nothing I’ve read says the Somali pirates are setting up a pirate town there. With just one airstrip and only 4 or 5 villages, I’d hope a small military presence and a few Coast Guard cutters would be enough to keep the pirates at bay.


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Posted by Drew458   United States  on 07/05/2011 at 08:50 AM   
Filed Under: • Pirates, aarrgh! •  
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