Peru Seeks To Save Desert Whales From Illegal Fossil Trafficking

By Dialogo
December 17, 2008

Paco de Campos / EFE The Ocucaje desert, about 300 kilometers south of Lima, houses hundreds of 20 million years old whale or shark fossils, treasures that the Peruvian authorities struggle to save from illegal trafficking. To this end, a group of Peruvian scientists have begun an inventory of the fossil remains of the area located 25 km from the coastline, which includes a shark fifteen feet long to penguins a half meters in height. “While some (fossil) were already known, in seven days of work we have found seven whales, a sloth, a large crocodile, a dolphin, a turtle and a shark,” said Cesar Chacaltana, the head of the Directorate of Ica's Regional Geological Metallurgical Mining Geological Institute (Ingemmet) in Peru. That's because, according to the scientist, “the abundance of fossil fuels is enormous” in the Ocucaje desert, which until 10 million years ago was an area of bays and islands with a semitropical climate with palm trees. The geodynamic evolution of the area into a desert, explained Chacaltana, created the right conditions for the fossilization of the animals, making Ocucaje one of the places in the world with more marine fossils and remains in better condition. “The mountain range that runs along this area serves as a barrier that has protected the deposits where these remains were found,” added the Peruvian geologist. In fact, the latest findings are no surprise because, as explained Chacaltana, studies have been conducted in the region since the nineteenth century, albeit very isolated." “The problem is that 20 or 30 years ago the trafficking of fossils began, so much that it was said that huaqueros (thieves of archaeological sites) in the area had left Huacos (pre-Columbian ceramics) to engage in stealing shark teeth,” added the regional chief of Ingemmet. In the area of Ica, where Ocucaje is located, mainly two pre-Inca cultures were developed: Paracas, famous for its funerary bundles and tissues, and Nazca, which is known for its giant “lines”, mysterious plots and figures drawn on the dry plain. The fossils illegally extracted from the desert of Ocucaje end up in the markets of the area, where they are habitual purchases of locals and tourists. Chacaltana defended the importance of these fossils to understand the biodiversity in the region because, he explained, “there are species that have either become extinct or have survived, or have evolved.” The geologist added that “there are even references that are primitive species of whales, which would study the evolution of cetaceans,” something that the plundering of the remains imperiled. The inventory performed by Ingemmet seeks to reverse this situation, allowing the study of fossils, and then highlight the area to attract tourists and generate profit for nearby towns. “To generate the paleontological identity we need to promote it in the area. No site museums, because it is an unpopulated area, but just a place to exhibit in the urban area,” said Chacaltana.