Dracaena cinnabari (the Dragon’s Blood tree) is perhaps the most famous and distinctive plant on Soqtora. It is a major component of the landscape and is important not only as a flagship species (a rallying point for conservation awareness) but also as an indicator species (a species which flags changes in biotic and abiotic conditions) and as an umbrella species (a species which, if protected, will bring other species under that protection). It comes into flower in February and takes five months from flower fully ripe fruit.
Habitat and Ecology
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
It is likely that D. cinnabari was, in the past, widely distributed over large parts of Soqotra. What then could account for its decline? Information from local informants and the historic record suggests that there has been no change in traditional land management practices until very recently, and, as regards Dracaena specifically: (i) the harvesting of Dracaena resin has lessened over recent years as the market for it has declined, and (ii) the use of the growing leaflets for cordage has almost died out with the introduction of nylon rope. However, it is true that during severe droughts, leaflets are removed and cracked open as fodder for goats. Nevertheless, it must be noted that this feed causes scour in goats, and so can only be fed in very small quanitities. The same goes for the fruit which are gathered in the summer and fed to goats but especially to cattle. However, once more, large quantities of the berries make both ill, so they must be fed in very small quanities (typically 5–8 berries for a goat, for instance). A starving goat will indeed nibble at the softer, younger leaflets of a young plant if it can find absolutely nothing else to eat, this is not a common occurrence. It would therefore be an over-simplification to blame the decline on over-grazing. It seems likely that grazing is only a factor preventing regeneration when populations are already under stress. Regeneration is also particularly problematic in relict populations which lack the dense under-storey of shrubs, which provide a protective nursery for young plants in healthy Dracaena woodland. Herders who feed their cattle on Dracaena fruit report observing seeds sprouting in feed areas; however, these young seedlings have not been observed surviving the subsequent dry season
Islanders have observed that in areas where Dracaena is failing to regenerate younger trees are not branching out to form the typical umbrella-shaped canopy, but are producing taller trunks instead. The exception to this is the high Haggeher mountains, where what are seen as ‘normal’ young trees are still common. They offer various possible explanations for this. The trees do best in the areas affected by the mists, low cloud and, in particular, the constant drizzle of the monsoon. Indeed, they regard the trees as constituting a natural indicator of this micro-climate. Oral history reports that the extent of this area has decreased over past generations, and this is one reason for the trees fialing to flourish. Oral history also reports that in earlier times the crowns were frequently completely covered in flowering spikes, whereas now it is more common for only part, or one side, of the crown to have flowering spikes, and these are less productive. Another contributing factor is believed to be the increased feeding of livestock with the flowers and fruit. This is due to increased livestock numbers, the high cost of supplementary cereal feeds, and the pressure of the years of drought in the 1970s and 1980s. This sometimes resulted in the complete stripping of the fruiting stalks from trees. Herders say that if too few fructescences are left on a tree year after year, the tree begins to die back.
The best Dracaena woodland occurs in Rokeb di Firmihin and the northern end of the Igalis plateaus which run from behind the Haggeher mountains down to the southern escarpment. After the Haggeher mountains themselves, these are the areas most affected by the monsoon clouds and mists. Islanders also say that the best trees occur in areas where the terrain consist of solid rock pavement with extensive cracks, down which water and soil flows after rains, providing moisture and nourishment for the roots of the trees. It is not difficult to produce seedlings from seed: cattle herders even in the drier areas have observed that when they feed the ripe fruit to their cows many seeds sprout later in the rains and cloud of the winter season. However, as soon as the cloud lifts and sun comes out, they are burned off, or, if the seed has sprouted in areas of herbage, they are grazed down along with the grasses and herbs.
It seems likely that a major cause of the decline in extent and quality of Dracaena woodland is the very gradual drying of the Archipelago. No direct palaeoclimatic data is available from Soqotra, however, there is strong circumstantial evidence that the islands have been drying over the last few hundred years. Local expertise describes Dracaena as occurring only in those high plateaux regions affected by the mists and cloud of the monsoon season (a period when the rest of the archipelago suffers strong and dessicating winds). Oral history and traditional reports that not only has the extent of this cloud/mist coverage diminished over the years, but also its duration and continuity: what used to be a predictable 4–5 months of cloud and drizzle in the area (resulting in the total evacuation of both people and livestock from the region down to the lower hills) has become instead patchy and discontinuous.
Other potential threats to the long-term survival of Dracaena cinnabari are the over-exploitation of Dragon’s Blood - a resin obtained from the bark of the tree. At present there is little demand for the resin but an increase in demand could lead to rapid over-collecting. The almost complete eradication of the closely related Dracaena draco on the Canary Islands has been linked to over-exploitation of the trees for Dragon’s Blood in the Middle Ages (Lucas and Synge 1978). Another threat is from the use of the trunks to make traditional beehives. There was recently a case when over 20 trees were felled to make beehives for export to the mainland. This incident was generally condemned on the island but illustrates how a breakdown in traditional practices poses a very real threat to species on the islands.
- 1998Endangered(Oldfield et al. 1998)
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The first description of D. cinnabari was made during a survey of Socotra led by Lieutenant Wellsted of the East India Company in 1835. It was first named Pterocarpus draco, but in 1880, the Scottish botanist Isaac Bayley Balfour made a formal description of the species and renamed it as Dracaena cinnabari. Of between 60 and 100 Dracaena species, D. cinnabari is one of only 6 species which grows as a tree.
The Dragon blood tree is arguably the most famous and distinctive plant of the island of Socotra. It has a unique and strange appearance, described as upturned, densely -packed crown having the shape of an upside-down umbrella. This evergreen species is named after its dark red resin, that is known as "dragon's blood".
Unlike most monocot plants, the Dracaenaceae display secondary growth, D. cinnabari even has growth zones resembling tree rings found in dicot tree species. Along with other arborescent Dracaena species it has a distinctive growth habit called ‘Dracoid habitus’. Its leaves are only found at the end of its youngest branches, their leaves are all shed every 3 or 4 years before new leaves simultaneously mature. Branching tends to occur when the growth of the terminal bud is stopped, either due to flowering or traumatic events (e.g. herbivory).
Its fruits are small fleshy berries containing between 1 and 3 seeds. As they develop they turn from green to black and then become orange once they are ripe. The berries are eaten by birds (e.g. Onychognatus species) and thereby dispersed. The seeds are between 4mm and 5mm in diameter and weigh on average 68 mg. The berries exude a deep red resin, known as dragon’s blood.
Like other monocotyledons, such as palms, the dragon’s blood tree grows from the tip of the stem, with the long, stiff leaves borne in dense rosettes at the end (4, 5, 7). It branches at maturity to produce an umbrella shaped crown, with leaves that measure up to 60 centimeters long and 3 centimeters wide. The trunk and the branches of the Dragon blood are thick and stout and display dichotomous branching, where each of the branches repeatedly divide in two sections.
The dragon's blood tree usually produces its flowers around February, though flowering does vary with location. The flowers tend to grow at the end of the branches. The flowers have inflorescences, and they bear small clusters of fragrant, white or green flowers. The fruits take five months to completely mature. The fruits are described as a fleshy berry, which changes from green to black as it gradually ripens. The fleshy berry fruit ends up being an orange-red color that contains one to three seeds (is only one seed). The berries are usually eaten and dispersed by birds and other animals.
The unusual shape of the dragon's blood tree is an adaptation for survival in arid conditions with low amounts of soil, such as in mountaintops. The large, packed crown provides shade and reduces evaporation. This shade also allows aids in the survival of seedlings growing beneath the adult tree, explaining why the trees tend to grow closer together.
Along with other plants on Socotra, D. cinnabari is thought to have derived from the Tethyan flora. It is considered a remnant of the Mio-Pliocene Laurasian subtropical forests that are now almost extinct due to the extensive desertification of North Africa.
Dragon's blood is used as a stimulant and abortifacient . The root yields a gum-resin, used in gargle water as a stimulant, astringent and in toothpaste. The root is used in rheumatism, the leaves are a carminative.
The trees can be harvested for their crimson red resin, called Dragon's blood which was highly prized in the ancient world and is still used today. Around the Mediterranean basin it is used as a dye and as a medicine, Socotrans use it ornamentally as well as dying wool, gluing pottery, a breath freshener and lipstick. Because of the belief that it is the blood of the dragon it is also used in ritual magic and alchemy. In 1883, the Scottish botanist, Isaac Bayley Balfour identified three grades of resin; the most valuable were tear-like in appearance, then a mixture of small chips and fragments, with a mixture of fragments and debris being the cheapest. The resin of D. cinnabari is thought to have been the original source of dragons blood until during the mediaeval and renaissance periods when other plants were used instead.
The local inhabitants of the city in the Socotra Island use the Dragon's blood resin as a cure all. They use it in general wound healing, as a coagulant, cure for diarrhea, for dysentery diseases, for lowering fevers. It is also taken for ulcers in the mouth, throat, intestines and stomach.
Dragon's blood of Dracaena cinnabari was used as a source of varnish for 18th century Italian violin-makers. It was also used as tooth-paste in the 18th century. It is currently still used as varnish for violins and for photoengraving.
Dragon's blood red resin is used for religious purposes in American hoodoo, African-American folk magic, and New Orleans voodoo. Widely used in mojo hands for money-drawing or love-drawing, and is used as incense to cleanse a space of negative entities or influences. It is added to red ink to make "Dragon's Blood Ink", which is used to inscribe magical seals and talismans.
Although most of its ecological habitats are still intact, there is an increasing population with industrial and tourism development. This is putting more pressure on the vegetation through the process of logging, overgrazing, woodcutting and infrastructure of development plans. Though the dragon’s blood tree is highly widespread, it has become fragmented due to the development that has occurred in its habitats. Many of its populations are suffering due to poor regeneration. Human activities have greatly reduced the dragon’s blood population through overgrazing, and feeding the flowers and fruits to the livestock of the island. One of the species' greatest threats is the gradual drying out of the Socotra Archipelago, which has been an ongoing process for the last few hundred years. This has resulted in non flourishing trees, and the duration of the mist and cloud around the area seems to also be decreasing. Increasing arid environments is predicted to cause a 45 percent reduction in the available habitat for Dracaena cinnabari by the year 2080.
Additional threats to the dragon's blood tree include harvesting of its resin and use of the leaves to make rope. Presently some of the dragon’s blood trees have been used to make beehives. This was generally prohibited; this displays how the species may be threatened by a breakdown in the traditional practices of the island.
The unique flora and fauna of the Socotra Archipelago is considered a World Heritage Site a Global 200 Ecoregion. It is a Center of Plant Diversity and an Endemic Bird Area. It also lies within the Horn of Africa biodiversity hotspot. There are multiple efforts that are being developed to help create and support a sustainable habitat and biodiversity management programs on Socotra. The dragon’s blood tree is considered as an important species for commodity and for conservation efforts on the island. The dragon’s blood falls under an umbrella species. This is a species selected for making conservation related decisions, typically because protecting these species indirectly protects the many other species that make up the ecological community of its habitat. Species conservation can be subjective because it is difficult to determine the status of many species. Thus, the dragons blood protection efforts would also benefit many other plants and animals within the area.
The dragon's blood tree is given some protection from international commercial trade under the listing of all Dracaena species on Appendix II of CITES (3), but if its populations are to be effectively preserved, a variety of measures will need to be taken. These include urgent monitoring of the species' natural regeneration and the expansion of Skund Nature Sanctuary to cover important areas of the habitats. Also, efforts on avoiding road construction in the dragon blood’s habitat, and limit grazing need to be brought to attention. Additional conservation efforts for the tree involve fencing against livestock, watering of seedlings in open areas, and involving local communities in planting seedlings.
- 1.IUCN Red List (March, 2010) 
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- 3.CITES (March, 2010) 
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- 5.Socotra Governance and Biodiversity Project (March, 2010) 
- 6.Attorre, F., Francesconi, F., Taleb, N., Scholte, P., Saed, A., Alfo, M. and Bruno, F. (2007) Will dragonblood survive the next period of climate change? Current and future potential distribution of Dracaena cinnabari (Socotra, Yemen). Biological Conservation, 138: 430-439.
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- 9.UNEP-WCMC: Socotra Archipelago, Yemen (March, 2010) 
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- ^ Attorre, F.; Francesconi, F.; Taleb, N.; Scholte, P.; Saed, A.; Alfo, M.; Bruno, F. (2007). "Will dragonblood survive the next period of climate change? Current and future potential distribution of Dracaena cinnabari (Socotra, Yemen)". Biological Conservation 138: 430. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2007.05.009.
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- ^ Edwards, H. G. M.; De Oliveira, L. F. C.; Prendergast, H. D. V. (2004). "Raman spectroscopic analysis of dragon's blood resins?basis for distinguishing between Dracaena (Convallariaceae), Daemonorops (Palmae) and Croton (Euphorbiaceae)". The Analyst 129: 134. Bibcode 2004Ana...129..134E. doi:10.1039/b311072a.