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Biodiversity in a changing Middle East

24 June 2011 Ghent University

Since several months, a revolution has started in the Middle East of which no one can predict to which changes it will lead. The need for change in the region is very strong and is not limited to the purely social and political aspects, yet also include the environment and the conservation and management of cultural and natural heritage.

The concern for biodiversity in the region is illustrated in a recent article in Nature Middle East. This high standard e-magazine is part of Nature and focuses on state-of-the-art scientific developments and discoveries in the Middle East. As a focal point for the article, written by Dr Kay Van Damme (a biologist that obtained his PhD last year at UGent, Belgium), a ca. 60-page thick study was used that was written by latter researcher together with Lisa Banfield (Royal Botanical Garden of Edinburgh, UK), which appeared earlier this year in the scientific journal Zoology of the Middle East. The article by Van Damme & Banfield discussed the main impacts that form a threat to the biodiversity of Socotra Island. In this review, the biologists studied local current impacts on the island within a historical context and in comparison to other islands in the world. In conclusion, they showed that endemic birds, reptiles and terrestrial mollusks on Socotra had not underwent extinctions in the last century, in sheer contrast to other islands in the world, yet that the impacts and threats are present.

Socotra, a Yemeni Island in the Indian Ocean, harbors a remarkable biodiversity – the island is situated in the top five of islands in the world with the highest number of endemic plant species per square kilometer. As a continental island, it harbours a fauna and flora of high evolutionary and biogeographical importance. The archipelago has therefore been named “the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean”, but the comparison is not complete: Socotra is much older, in fact it is an old piece of continent in contrast to the younger, volcanic Galapagos. Since the ‘90s, an international multidisciplinary team of researchers, among which Van Damme, has been active in investigating and describing the unique biodiversity of the island. Each year new species of plants and animals are being discovered and the Socotra Archipelago was nominated in 2008 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The biodiversity richness of this island illustrates a different aspect of Yemen than the negative connotation this country often receives in the media. The importance of the biodiversity of Socotra reaches much further than the purely scientific and includes the importance of natural resources for the local people. A focus on current protection of the environment would therefore help guarantee local resources for the future.

In times of political turmoil and destabilization, when in fact the need for continuation of long-term projects in biodiversity is highest, everything comes to a stand-still says Dr Van Damme. The attention that is given to this subject in Nature Middle East, illustrates the importance of biodiversity and the environment in a changing Middle East. Dr Van Damme says in the article that the current historical tipping point in which Yemen is situated, also allows an opportunity to emphasize the importance of nature conservation and to think about the future. Science and conservation are likely to undergo paradigm shifts in the region and the importance of culture and nature in the Middle East, is likely to remain high. The article of Van Damme in Nature Middle East, the first Belgian researcher who has ever published in Nature Middle East, illustrates these aspects.

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