There is a place on Earth so rich in paleontological history that it is unmatched in the story it tells about early mammal evolution.
It could have been lost forever -- it almost was lost forever -- except for the efforts of a lot of people, not to mention the collective efforts done under the banner of AAPG and an influential AAPG field guide.
First, the background: Just under the surface in the northern region of Egypt’s Fayoum lies a snapshot of life at least 40 million years ago -- the late Eocene period, when the ancient Tethys Sea had gradually receded to reveal the Fayoum Basin.
The great expanse was then dotted with lush estuaries, home to Basilosaurus whales that gathered annually to give birth in the protection of a sea channel. As the last whales with functioning feet, these ancient mammals left a grand testament to their lineage in this watery retreat. At last count, 406 whale skeletons of various species have been discovered in the area appropriately named Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley).
“There are possibly as many as five species of fossil archaeocoete whales present in Wadi Al-Hitan, but only two are well known,” said Samir Ghabbour, Institute of African Research and Studies, University of Cairo. “One of them is the very large (18 meters) Basilosaurus isis, with well-developed, five-fingered flippers on the forelimbs and, surprisingly, the presence of hind legs, feet and toes, not known previously in any archaeocoete. The other species isDorudon atrox, a small (4-to-5 meter) whale with a more compact dolphin-like body.
“Besides whales, fossils from three species of early sirenians (sea cows), one partial skeleton of the primitive proboscidian Moeritherium (similar to an early elephant), early mammals, lower vertebrate remains, three kinds of sawfish, bony fishes and several kinds of turtles, sea snakes and crocodiles are also present.”
With the continued retreat of ancient waterways, this lush, temperate refuge eventually withered into its contemporary desert form. The veritable aquarium of creatures, though, remained in fossilized form so dense and well preserved that it stands alone in its uniqueness.
Wadi Al-Hitan, though, is only one chapter in the Fayoum chronicles. Just to the northeast at Qasr El Saga lie several large, well-preserved petrified forests, captured for time in the Paleonile River channel deposits. Due north is the basalt quarry of Widan el-Faras, which yielded stone as early as 3000 B.C. The quarry road itself is one of the oldest on earth, dating from around 5000 B.C. to 8000 B.C. Basalt traveled down this paved path to an ancient pier, on to the Nile and then was set in the mortuary temples at Giza and Abusir. Likewise, gypsum from a nearby quarry at Umm es-Sawan was transported out of the area and used for burial vessels from the Predynastic period (c. 4000 B.C.).
All told, the tremendous paleontologicalcache of natural relics found, and those yet to be discovered, merits protection and further investigation, according to the Egyptian government that incorporated the six-square kilometers of Wadi Al-Hitan as part of the 1,759-square-kilometer Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area (WRPA) in 1989.
Nine years later, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) and Italy’s General Directorate for Development Cooperation (DGCD) formed a joint initiative to conserve the WRPA, with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) acting in an advisory capacity.
The domestic and international focus on this rare, fragile area increasingly drew the attention of the often diametrically opposed factions of environmentalists and tourists.
When AAPG selected Cairo as the host city for its international conference and exhibition in October 2002, the local membership knew that the Wadi Al-Hitan, 100 kilometers to the south, would be a must-see. AAPG members received government permission to tour the site during the conference, with the caveat that the team prepare a field guide documenting Wadi Al-Hitan’s paleontological value -- and formulate a management plan to conserve the treasure while promoting ecotourism.
Tourists had routinely ignored the requisite permission to enter Wadi Al-Hitan -- and unchecked in their access, these sightseers often plundered fossil remains and pounded the desert floor with four-wheel-drive vehicles that crush the delicate prehistoric remains.
“The number of visitors is too high for such an extremely fragile area, where the fossil skeletons are exposed on the surface of the ground and the fossil mangrove remains crumble at the mere touch of fingers,” Samir said.
A multi-industry team of geologists, ecotourism promoters and conservationists toured the Fayoum Basin in February 2002. Data gathered from their research and individual impressions from their visit formed the basis for the AAPG-produced Wadi Al-Hitan Field Guide.
On that outing, the team found a sea cow skeleton nearly perfectly preserved. By the fall expedition, the remains from that same sea cow were completely destroyed, presumably by off-road tracking and fossil pilfering.
“This site is the best preserved vertebrate collection I have ever seen in its natural habitat,” says Mark Shann, geologist for British Petroleum (BP). “In Whale Valley, you not only see whale (remains), but also the beach sand onto which they died 50 million years ago, as well as the accompanying fossil sharks, turtles and mangrove swamps.
“Its proximity to Cairo means that human destruction is only a few years away. Fifteen years ago, it was untouched by car track, tourists and the like. Today, it is on its way to dusty oblivion.”
Getting a Plan In Place
Although part of a protected area, there was no onsite management in place to control access and facilitate conservation of Wadi Al-Hitan. Neither was there a reconstructed skeleton of the Basillosourus whale, despite the abundant remains.
The significant geological merit of Wadi Al-Hitan and its chronology of Earth’s development led UNESCO to designate the area as a World Heritage Site (WHS) during the summer of 2004. An integral part of that international moniker is that the location must have a management plan in place.
The 2002 AAPG field guide was not only the catalyst for nomination for World Heritage status, but it provided an in-depth plan to achieve the objectives of monitoring, ecotourism and overall management.
The field guide, along with the impetus to achieve the rare WHS designation, was a joint effort by some 15 AAPG members, corporate interests (including BP, Shell and Devon), Egyptian embassies, the Italian-Egyptian Protectorate and the IUCN among many others.
Phase two of the World Heritage Site implementation plan, currently under way, includes erecting signs, gates and a monitoring system. A visitors’ center and ranger station also are anticipated as well as the possible expansion of the WHS designation to include the Fayoum Basin to the north.
“This development is actually part of the important results of having the site enrolled to be on the World Heritage list,” says AAPG member Ahmed El-Barkooky, Cairo University lecturer of geology and Shell Egypt senior stratigrapher.
“The research and the management, I think, encouraged the governmental organizations and the people to do more for the protection and the real management of the plan,” he said, “and also to raise funds from other organizations to help the management process of this site.”
An Ongoing Tall Order
Preserving the Wadi Al-Hitan and surrounding historic treasures is a mammoth effort that goes well beyond infrastructure. Intrinsic change is a gradual process that starts with an investment in education.
“The site and the area it is located within are extremely poor. So if you talk about managing it and using local resources, you need to invest a lot in training and capacity building,” said Nina Prochazka, general manager of programs and organizational development for the North South Consultants Exchange.
Prochazka accompanied AAPG on its February 2002 field trip into the Fayoum and served as an ecotourism adviser.
“It’s really not only about infrastructure; infrastructure is a much smaller issue,” she said. “If you want local people to benefit, it should be about their skills and their capacities, too, to be able to work there, to run a functioning restaurant, to be ticket collectors, to be guides and provide resources to the site.”
The multinational, multi-industry effort that put Wadi Al-Hitan on the map is potentially the best candidate to facilitate sustained conservation and investigation into this unique treasure. Without a concerted, long-term effort, the Wadi Al-Hitan may be doomed to the same fate as South Dakota’s Fossil Cedar National Monument in South Dakota. This former jewel of the upper U.S. Midwest is now closed due to the destruction caused by unregulated access and the consequential plundering.
“Each AAPG member is a center for getting this information to others among the community,” Ahmed said. “It is really very important.”