Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Largest mammal fossils on earth lost in Pakistan

Fossils of Baluchitherium are believed to have become collateral in the 2006 military operation against the late Nawab Akbar Bugti in Pakistan.
KARACHI: The scorched, dusty hills of Dera Bugti held invaluable treasure that could have made the world a richer place. That treasure, however, may have been destroyed in a military operation in 2006.
Besides the Baloch chieftain, Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was targeted and killed in the operation, another great casualty was the fossilised remains of the largest mammal that walked the earth – Baluchitherium.
The discovery of the first, almost-complete skeleton of the mammal was made by a team of French scientists in 1999. Thirteen years later, they fear that their discovery, packed into containers at Bugti’s mansion, may have been lost. Continued military control of the region, however, ensures that there is no way to find out if the fossils, that hold invaluable information about the world as it existed millions of years ago, may have survived.
Gigantic discovery
The mammal’s fossils were first discovered in 1910 by English paleontologist Sir Clive Forster Cooper who christened his finding the Baluchitherium, or ‘the beast of Balochistan.’
A giant, hornless rhinoceros-like creature – measuring 21 feet from nose to tail and 18 feet in height – weighed approximately the mass of four elephants.
No further investigations, however, were carried out until the 1990s when a French paleontologist, Jean-Loup Welcomme, came to Pakistan to follow in Cooper’s footsteps.
Welcomme’s team included three more Frenchmen from the University of Montpellier – Dr Pierre-Olivier Antoine, Dr Laurent Marivaux and Dr Gregoire Metais.
They worked painstakingly for months in the scorching heat of Dera Bugti hills and found not just an almost-complete skeleton of the mammal dating back to at least 30 million years, but also other extinct fauna corresponding to the same period.
According to a BBC news item from May 10, 1999, “the team also found a nine-metre-long fossilised trunk of a palm tree, along with fossils of two different types of crocodile and what the scientists describe as a very big pig.”
The discoveries lead them to conjecture that Bugti hills, now a forbidding desert, were a tropical region some 40 million years ago. The world of paleontology was ecstatic at the findings.
Nawab’s hospitality
Nawab Bugti at the site of reconstruction of the mammal’s skeleton. 

No story about Pakistan is complete without an element of local hospitality though. This one is no exception.
Back in the mid-90s, no one could do anything in Bugti hills without Nawab Akbar Bugti’s permission, says Dr AA Qureshi, one of the co-scientists who had worked with Welcomme on the discovery.
The octogenarian Qureshi, the founder of Safari Park and former director of Karachi zoo, now lives in a modest house in Shadman town, Karachi.
Welcomme sought authorization from Bugti, explaining that they had been studying the Baluchitherium for the last 20 years and if they found its remains, it would be a huge discovery in the scientific world.
“The late Nawab gave the permission only after they agreed to his conditions – that they would stay with him in his house; his guards would watch over them wherever they went and that they would have to have lunch or dinner with him every day,” says Qureshi.
After the bones were found in 1999 and analysed for data, permission was sought to take them to France where a complete replica could be built.
Qureshi says Bugti did not want the bones to be taken away initially and asked the scientists to make the replica here. Eventually, however, the permission to take the bones for a brief period was given on the condition that they would be returned soon.
That, unfortunately for the discovery, did not happen.
Bombed out
“Yes, the Nawab had given permission to us to take the bones from the Bugti Hills, but we did not,” said Dr Pierre-Olivier Antoine, who corresponded with The Express Tribune via email from France.
Antoine said that in the early 2000s, they had been intending to move them to Karachi for replicating them in better working conditions than in the desert.
“Unfortunately, we did not get any funds for that purpose.”
He said that they had always refused to ship the specimens to France, because they considered them to be part of Baloch and Pakistani natural and historical heritage. “We don’t own them at all, even if our team was definitely best placed for studying them,” he said.
Finally, they were stored in Dera Bugti until the city was bombed by the Army in early 2006. The loss of one decade of hard fieldwork was collateral damage.
“Today, we consider the whole collection to be definitely lost, and thinking of it is a permanent heartbreak to me: so many friends were killed there and then,” Antoine said.
The impact of the discovery was as gigantic as the Baluchitherium itself since no paleontologist had been authorised to investigate in the Bugti hills between 1910 and 1995, said Dr Laurent Marivaux who was also part of the team.
“Our team has been the only one allowed to go there – thanks to the late Nawab Akbar Bugti,” he said.
Maurivaux said that today all they had with them were some photographs and measurements of the Baluchitherium bones they had taken back then.
Information blackout

A 3-D virtual reconstruction of the mammal in its original habitat.
When one of Nawab Bugti’s sons, Jamil Bugti, was approached for his version on the bones, he was incensed at the very mention of the beast.
He acknowledged the French team’s visit to Dera Bugti during the time when his father was alive but when asked to comment about the state of the Baluchitherium bones, he said: “I don’t know what happened to them. But first, you tell me where did the body of my father go?”
He said the ‘indiscriminate bombing’ destroyed his home and killed hundreds of his people. “And you’re asking me about dinosaurs?”
Recently, the Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP) approached the army to provide them with access to Dera Bugti, so that the fossils could be recovered.
They were told, however, that this was not one of the Army’s top priorities at this point in time.
Ray of hope
Children in Dera Bugti see a fragment of Baluchitherium’s jaw
While the French scientists have given up all hope, some scientists with the GSP sound an optimistic note and say it is possible the fossils might have survived the bombings.
Senior geologist and deputy director GSP Muhammad Sadiq Malkani said: “These bones have survived millions of years. Even if the storage houses in Dera Bugti have been bombed, it is possible that some parts of those discoveries may still be intact.”
Malkani, dubbed the ‘dinosaur man,’ had more heartening findings to share – that famed dinosaurs may have roamed in what is today Pakistan.
Since the year 2000, more than 3,000 fossils of dinosaurs have been collected from various parts of Pakistan, including Balochistan and Sindh, Malkani said while speaking to The Express Tribune by phone from his Quetta office.
His research names pre-historic creatures including Khetranisaurus, Sulaimanisaurus, Pakisaurus, Marisaurus and Balochisaurus. He said these of dinosaurs were ‘sabzi khors,’ or vegetarians.
However, carnivorous dinosaurs such as the Vitakridarinda have also been discovered in Pakistan.
“My office is full of these dinosaur fossils,” he said, adding that some of the best fossil records are available in volatile regions of Balochistan such as in Dera Bugti.
“However, there are some safe areas in Barkhaan and Dera Ghazi Khan where such fossil records can also be seen.”
Heartening heritage
Antoine backed Malkani’s finding and said there was strong evidence to suggest that dinosaurs inhabited Pakistan millions of years ago.
“Cretaceous deposits of Sindh and Balochistan have already yielded some dinosaur remains in the last decades,” he said. Cretaceous refers to rocks deposited from about 146 million to 65 million years ago.
Antoine and his team now work in Sindh with their colleagues from the Center of Pure and Applied Geology of the University of Sindh in Jamshoro.
Speaking with The Express Tribune over the phone, Antoine said Pakistan is one of the few countries where evidence of early whales and dolphins exist.
“These whales and dolphins had legs and limbs back then and this is something which one can find in Pakistan,” he said. One of them is named Pakicetus. Another prehistoric creature discovered in the country was the crocodile-like Ambulocetus.
“One can’t decipher the early history of whales and dolphins without looking at the fossil records from Pakistan,” the French scientist said.
He added that every effort must be made to preserve these prehistoric treasures since they will be valuable for all generations to come.
“Pakistan has a very, very rich paleontological record. It is very important to preserve it … because this is a treasure that belongs to humanity,” Dr Marivaux said.
Relentless scientist
Pakistani scientist Dr Qureshi with the French team.
Meanwhile in Karachi, Qureshi continues to work passionately for the conservation of Pakistan’s natural heritage. “A scientist never retires,” he said with a glint in his eye.
The walls of his room are adorned with newspaper clippings and photographs with statesmen including General Ayub Khan to whom he presented wildlife elephants that he had caught.
In honour of his contribution as a wildlife expert and conservationist, the French team had named a new species of rodent fossils discovered in Pakistan after him – the Fallomus Qureshi.
He has been striving for long to have a life-sized replica of the Baluchitherium installed at the Safari Park. His pleas to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation administrators, however, have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Holding a copy of the now-shut eveninger Star’s edition, for which he had written the first lead story about the Baluchitherium in 1999, Qureshi said: “It’s a tragedy that nobody even remembers today what a fantastic achievement we had made back then.”
This story was first published in the Express Tribune on April 7, 2012.