Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 February 2008
Issue No. 884
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A tourist site for archaic whales

Three years after its listing on UNESCO's World Heritage List, Wadi Al-Hitan was opened as a tourist site by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak last Sunday, Nevine El-Aref reports

Click to view caption
Mrs Mubarak during her visit to Wadi Al-Hitan

In the parched desert on the westernmost edge of the Fayoum Depression stretches Wadi Al-Hitan (Whales Valley), its invaluable fossil remains of the earliest and now extinct sub-order of whales, the Archaeoceti, scattered among wind-eroded pillars of rock surrounded by sand dunes, cliffs and remnants of low shale hills and a limestone plateau of petrified sea-shells and corals.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and nominated as the first natural heritage site in Egypt in July 2005, Wadi Al-Hitan is one of the most important sites in the world for demonstrating one of the iconic changes that make up the record of life on Earth: the evolution of the whales.

Remains at the site vividly portray their form and mode of life during their transition from being land animals to taking on a marine existence. It exceeds the value of other comparable sites in terms of the number, concentration and quality of the fossil remains found there, as well as their accessibility and setting in an attractive and protected landscape. The site also accords with key principles stated in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) study on fossil World Heritage Sites, and represents features currently absent from the World Heritage List.

Following its nomination, a three-year-long site management project was implemented in Wadi Al-Hitan in an attempt to protect it from urban encroachment or human destruction. The project includes a well-equipped visitors centre with an audio-visual theatre, an open-air fossil museum, a cafeteria and toilets, as well as a parking zone outside the protected area and a small barn for camels used by visitors in touring the site.

At the invitation of the Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Maged George, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak attended the inauguration of the site on Sunday and was given a tour of the unique natural landscape.

Later, she was presented with a Ministry of Environment whale-shaped award by George and a copy of the Wadi Al-Hitan nomination certificate by Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Hani Helal. Mrs Mubarak is well known as a champion of the environment and has lent her support to several projects that cultivate awareness of Egypt's natural heritage and the Cairo environment.

George said that in order to protect the site, visitors are guided along a prescribed trail either on foot or by camel, while many activities have been prohibited on the site. These include the destruction of geological formations, discharging pollutants, hunting and littering. He pointed out that Wadi Al-Hitan is patrolled daily to catch illegal visitors, and twice a week a team monitors the condition of the fossils, photographing them and when necessary repairing damage.

Members of neighbouring Bedouin tribes are trained as guards and tourist guides, and local people participate in the area's management. Motorcycle patrols and camel supply transport exist. A field outpost has been set up in excavated caves to provide protection from the extreme conditions. An open-air museum, two camping sites, camel tours and a Bedouin-style ecolodge supplied by private eco-tourism companies can also be found at the site.

Wadi Al-Hitan is the only site in the world where the skeletons of families of archaic whales can be seen in their original geological and geographical setting of the shallow nutrient-rich bay of a sea that dates back some 40 million years.

The fossils and sediments from different periods and levels reveal many millions of years of life and are valuable indications of the palaeo- ecological conditions of Eocene vertebrate and invertebrate life and the evolution of these ancestors of modern whales. Remarkably, two species still had small hind limbs, feet and toes.

The quality, abundance, concentration and state of preservation of these fossils are unequalled. Fossil remains of sea grasses and mangroves with clearly exposed vertical pneumatophores are also found, along with fennec foxes, mammals, African jackals, red foxes, Egyptian mongooses, African wildcats and dorcas gazelles. Nineteen species of reptile and 36 breeding birds have been recorded, mostly attracted by the lakes.

The desert hoopoe lark probably also finds a home in Wadi Al-Hitan. The site contains a diverse Eocene marine fauna, including 25 genera of more than 14 families and four classes of vertebrates. They are not among the oldest whale fossils, but they cover a vital evolutionary period of some four million years when these mammals evolved from land to sea-going animals.

The fossils, which range from young to old individuals in a large concentration of specimens, are so well preserved that even some of the stomach contents are intact.

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