Somalia's untold beauty
- Kevin G. Belmonte () - May 9, 2009 - 12:00am

Somalia has been in the world’s spotlight for quite some time now but, unfortunately, the stories of Somali pirates and their escapades along the very busy maritime routes along the Gulf of Aden have severely tarnished Somalia’s global image. In particular, two news items caught my eye. In September 2008, BBC Africa analyst Mary Harper wrote, “Whenever word comes out that pirates have taken yet another ship in the Somali region of Puntland, extraordinary things start to happen. There is a great rush to the port of Eyl, where most of the hijacked vessels are kept by the well-armed pirate gangs. People put on ties and smart clothes. They arrive in land cruisers with their laptops, one saying he is the pirates’ accountant, another that he is their chief negotiator. With yet more foreign vessels seized off the coast of Somalia this week, it could be said that hijackings in the region have become epidemic… In Eyl, there is a lot of money to be made, and everybody is anxious for a cut.”

In its May 4, 2009 issue, The Saudi Gazette wrote: “The hijacked Sirius Star is anchored off Harardhere, a tiny Somali village which could fit in its entirety on the bridge of the Saudi super-tanker but has emerged as the piracy capital of the world. Located some 300 kilometers (180 miles) north of the capital Mogadishu, Harardhere is the main base for a group of pirates currently holding the Sirius Star, an arms-laden Ukrainian cargo (vessel) and other ships. The village lies some distance from the coast and is populated mainly by members of the Hawiye clan, the largest in Somalia and the backbone of the opposition to the government and Ethiopia’s military presence. Yet Harardhere was never a typical sleepy fishing village and has always had a reputation for lawlessness, a place where the rifle supercedes any other form of authority. ‘When in Mogadishu, you have to earn your money, when in Harardhere, just use guns.’ This popular Somali saying has sealed the village’s image as a breeding ground for bandits and warlords.”

For years, acts of piracy in Somalia’s waters focused on and around the Gulf of Aden, further north up the Somali coastline, or further south where a group operating out of Kismayo targeted foreign boats fishing illegally. Harardhere came to the fore in 2006 when a large ransom was paid for the release of a South Korean ship as well as several other merchant vessels. The group of pirates operating out of Harardhere and the coastal village of Hobyo, further north, is one of the most recent but also the boldest working the busy maritime routes off Somalia’s long coastline. Piracy is one of the only flourishing trades in war-ravaged Somalia and Harardhere has gentrified in recent months.”

What really caught my eye about these two news bits was not so much the acts of the Somali pirates. I guess many of us have grown sick and tired of reading about these acts every other day now. Rather, it was the names of the towns where these acts of piracy are centered in. In the first news bit, the town of Eyl is highlighted. In the second news bit, it’s the town of Harardhere. Some of the rarest and most beautiful and exotic succulents in the world come from Somalia. And two of the absolute rarest plants are found around these two Somali towns and bear their names. The first is Pseudolithos eylensis and the second is Pseudolithos harardheranus. Its name coming from the Greek pseudo, meaning “false,” and lithos, meaning “stone,” for the appearance of the stems, pseudolithos constitute some of the most succulent species among the Stapeliads, with the tessellation of the stem’s surface being a characteristic hallmark of the genus. These plants are also among the most prized of all succulents by collectors worldwide.

Somalia is Africa’s easternmost country. Its terrain consists mainly of “Plateau” plateaus, “Plain” plains and highlands. In the far north, the rugged east-west ranges of the Karkaar Mountains lie at varying distances from the Gulf of Aden coast. The weather is hot throughout the year, except at the higher elevations in the north. Rainfall is sparse, and most of Somalia has a semi-arid to arid environment suitable only for the nomadic pastoralism practiced by well over half the population. Only in limited areas of moderate rainfall in the northwest, and particularly in the southwest, where the country’s two perennial rivers are found, is agriculture practiced to any extent.

In her compilation called Cactus and Succulent Plants, Sara Oldfield discusses Somalia’s flora: “Somalia has about 3,000 flowering plant species of which about 500 are endemic. Highly specialized vegetation types within the country support many endemic xerophytic plant species, suggesting that arid climate conditions have remained unchanged for long periods of time…The northeast of Somalia is particularly rich in succulent plant diversity and is considered to be an internationally important center of plant diversity. Specialized limestone habitats, with outcrops of pure gypsum, harbor many endemic species. Some of these species have been known only from single collections by early naturalist explorers, and many others have only been discovered in the past 15 years.”

Examples of some of these endemic succulent species, found nowhere else in the world, include Pseudolithos cubiformis, Euphorbia columnaris, Euphorbia turbiniformis, Euphorbia sepulta, Pseudolithos caput-viperae, Pseudolithos migiurtinus and Euphorbia phillipsiae. As you can see from the photos, some of these succulents have specialist adaptations to the arid and sometimes inhospitable environment in certain parts of Somalia, notably the various Pseudolithos species.

Many of these plants remain among the very rarest of all succulents and are coveted by collectors worldwide. In part two of “Somalia’s untold beauty,” I will describe more of the fascinating succulents endemic to this country, their state in the wild, conservation efforts being undertaken to insure their future survival, and some tips on cultivating these wonders of Nature.

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