A Photographer’s Journey to Yemen to Shoot the Dragon Blood Tree

Yemen isn’t exactly a popular destination among photographers these days. The US government has issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory for the country, warning that there’s a risk of terrorism, civil unrest, health risks, kidnapping, and armed conflict. But photographer Marsel van Oosten recently traveled to the Yemeni island of Socotra, the “jewel of the Arabian Sea,” to photograph the dragon blood tree.

Located 240 miles (380km) south of Yemen and 150 miles (240km) east of Somalia, Socotra is also known as the “Galapagos of the Middle-East” — the island is so isolated that it’s estimated that 37% of the plant species there (about 700 of them) are found nowhere else on Earth. And one of those species is the tree Van Oosten journeyed there to see and shoot.

The dragon blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari) is a bizarre umbrella-shaped tree that gets its name from its red sap, which was thought to be the dragon’s blood of the ancients.

Above is an 18-minute documentary film of Van Oosten’s journey made by filmmaker Awi Rabelista using two Nikon Z6 mirrorless cameras (with the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 on one body and the Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G on the other).

“Yemen has been unstable for decades,” Van Oosten writes. “Civil wars, a revolution, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, starvation. The current civil war started in 2015 and has cost the lives of over 20,000 civilians. […] ⁣⁣⁣As a result, it has been impossible to visit the island for many years – no planes or even boats would go there (I tried). Until suddenly I saw an opportunity and I took it.

“It turned out to be one of the most intense projects I have ever done.”

A photo of dragon blood trees made by Van Oosten during the trip.

The dragon blood tree is classified as Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — climate change (the drying out of the island and irregular monsoon weather), people (who extract the resin for medicine, makeup, and paint), and animals (domesticated goats eat the seedlings) are three big things that are said to threaten the future of the trees.

“Socotra has been a World Heritage Site since 2008, which has led to high levels of environmental protection, but the challenge will be to convince the local population to keep their goats out of protected areas,” Van Oosten says.