India's paleontologists fight destruction of its fossil riches
LUCKNOW AND BAGH, INDIA—Last December, paleontologist Guntupalli V. R. Prasad and his team were hunting for signs of dinosaur nests buried in a limestone hillock near Bagh, a town in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state. They found trouble instead.
As the group from the University of Delhi fanned out along a formation skirting a farm, several people from a nearby village gathered to confront them. Locals often assume that outsiders prowling their land are government officials bent on appropriating tracts for a pittance in order to develop them, Prasad says. When he started to explain, a man cut him short and told his fellow villagers, “Your land is gone now.” Tempers flared, and the scientists, fearing for their safety, beat a retreat.
It wasn’t always like that, Prasad says. But land grabs by companies, often aided by local officials, have escalated in India. Now, he says, “Suspicion and hostility deny us access to fossil sites and seriously harm our work.”
Lack of access is just one of the problems India’s paleontologists face. “India has some of the world’s greatest paleontological resources,” says Nigel Hughes, a paleobiologist at the University of California, Riverside, whose findings in the Himalayas have illuminated trilobite evolution. But Indian officials have done little to support a field widely viewed as impractical and esoteric.
With few legal protections, sites often fall victim to looting and development. And although funds are scarce for all science in India, the plight of paleontology is particularly acute. Little money is available for excavations and for acquiring and curating specimens, and the country lacks a national institution in which its natural heritage can be studied and preserved.
All of this discourages young people from entering the field. Cash-strapped universities are curtailing or axing paleontology courses, says Ashok Sahni, of Panjab University in Chandigarh, a leading figure in Indian paleontology. Sahni, best known for his finds of dinosaur nesting sites in Jabalpur and insects trapped in amber in Vastan, in Gujarat state, says he has watched waves of colleagues retire—with few young talents stepping in to replace them. “There is no critical mass of researchers left,” he says. “Indian paleontology is dying.”
Unless people have a stake in protecting sites they will continue to get destroyed.
The first dinosaur fossils found in Asia, belonging to a kind of sauropod, were unearthed in 1828 in Jabalpur, in central India’s Narmada Valley. Ever since, the subcontinent has yielded a stream of important finds, from some of the earliest plant remains through the reign of dinosaurs to a skull of the human ancestor Homo erectus. “Right from the time when photosynthesis started to the Quaternary [epoch], we have it all, continuous,” Sahni says.
Much of that fossil richness reflects India’s long, solitary march after it broke loose from the supercontinent Gondwanaland, starting some 150 million years ago. During 100 million years of drifting, the land mass acquired a set of plant and animal species, including many dinosaurs, that mix distinctive features with ones seen elsewhere. Then, 50 million to 60 million years ago, India began colliding with Asia, and along the swampy edges of the vanishing ocean between the land masses, new mammals emerged, including ancestral horses, primates, and whales.
Now, that rich legacy is colliding with the realities of present-day India. Take a site in Himachal Pradesh state where, in the late 1960s, an expedition by Panjab University and Yale University excavated a trove of humanoid fossils, including the most complete jaw ever found of a colossal extinct ape, Gigantopithecus bilaspurensis. The discovery helped flesh out a species known previously only through teeth and fragmentary jaws. Today’s paleontologists would love to excavate further at the site, Sahni says. But it “has been completely flattened”—turned into farm fields, with many of its fossils lost or sold. To India’s paleontologists, that is a familiar story.
In the early 1980s, for example, blasting at a cement factory in Balasinor in Gujarat revealed what the workers believed were ancient cannon balls. A team led by Dhananjay Mohabey, a paleontologist then at the Geological Survey of India in Kolkata, realized they were dinosaur eggs. Mohabey and his colleagues soon uncovered thousands more in hundreds of nests, as well as many other fossils. Examining one Cretaceous period clutch in 2010, Jeffrey Wilson of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor discerned what appeared to be snake bones. He and Mohabey recovered more fossil fragments and confirmed that a rare snake (Sanajeh indicus) had perished while coiled around a dinosaur egg. It was the first evidence, Mohabey says, of snakes preying on dinosaur hatchlings.
Mohabey and others have since documented seven dinosaur species that nested in the area. (In a separate find in Balasinor, other researchers unearthed the skeleton of a horned carnivore called Rajasaurus narmadensis—the royal Narmada dinosaur.) But locals and visitors soon began pillaging the sites. In the 1980s, dinosaur eggs were sold on the street for pennies.
In 1997, local authorities designated 29 hectares encompassing the nesting sites as the Balasinor Dinosaur Fossil Park in Raiyoli. But poaching continued largely unabated in the park and outside its boundaries, Mohabey says. Even now, the park is not fully fenced and the museum building, ready since 2011, is still not open. “I have myself seen a beautiful dinosaur nest just disappear from the Raiyoli park despite our efforts to hide it from the public gaze,” says Aaliya Farhat Babi, a local princess who moonlights as a fossil conservationist. “The eggs were meticulously taken out as if by some expert.”
The obliteration of the Balasinor fossil beds is almost complete, Mohabey says. “The majority of critical fossils are lost forever,” he says. “Sometimes I literally wish I had not have discovered the site.”
India’s national shrug toward its fossil riches began decades ago. Paleontology lost prestige in a scandal that erupted in 1989, when John Talent, a geologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, accused an Indian paleontologist of fraudulent activities over 25 years. Writing in Nature, Talent asserted that Vishwa Jit Gupta, a paleontologist then at Panjab University, had claimed discoveries that could not be confirmed later. Talent also charged that Gupta described as “Indian” specimens that had actually been dug up elsewhere. (Ammonoids that Gupta claimed had been found in the Himalayas were actually from Morocco.) Gupta “inundated geological and biogeographical literature of the Himalayas with a blizzard of disinformation so extensive as to render the literature almost useless,” Talent wrote.
Gupta’s university briefly suspended him, but he held onto his position after a long court battle and retired in 2002. India’s paleontology community has struggled to regain respect—and public confidence—ever since then.
Government neglect has been a much bigger problem, however, as officials and legislators have largely ignored pleas to protect sites. “Legally, it’s a free-for-all,” says Rajeev Pattanayak, a paleontologist at Panjab University. Without laws, he notes, there is no way to crack down on poachers. “We do not even have a system of permits for excavation or collection of fossils in India,” adds Sunil Bajpai, a paleontologist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee and director of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences (BIPS) in Lucknow.
The absence of legal protections for fossils also allows landowners to arbitrarily shut down access to sites. One coveted locale is a lignite coal mine in Vastan. “I always call Vastan not a coal mine, but a fossil gold mine,” Sahni says. The mine has coughed up some of the oldest fossils of mammals in South Asia, including evidence that horses arose on the subcontinent some 54 million years ago before spreading to other continents—a pioneering find by Bajpai and his colleagues at BIPS. Another team found more than 100 insect species in 50-million-year-old amber in that mine and others. The Vastan mine “was like a Garden of Eden where you could find entirely unexpected things,” Sahni says.
For many years, he says, mining officials allowed him and his colleagues to collect there. But since 2015, the mine has arbitrarily barred them, Sahni says. And some mines have destroyed fossil sites. In the Babiya Hills of Kutch, lignite mines have dumped waste rock on key localities for early whale fossils. Last year, Bajpai visited one site he’d excavated only to find that mining waste had “destroyed half the locality.”
Even after fossils are excavated and taken to museums, they are still at risk, Prasad says. “The biggest question before me is what will I do with my type specimens once I retire,” he says. Prasad has ruled out donating his type specimens—which defined new species of dinosaurs and early mammals—to his own University of Delhi, one of the best in the nation. In the cashstarved geology department, “all major instruments are out of order.” Faculty positions are perennially vacant, Prasad says, and there is scant money for expeditions or for training budding scientists. Other universities face conditions that are even more dire, he says. The bottom line is that far too often, “once people retire, their collections are simply thrown away by the new people or they rot unknown in some storage.”
Nor would Prasad hand his type specimens over to the Geological Survey, he says, even though it is the next logical choice after his university. At the Geological Survey’s museum, he claims, the specimens would be locked away—and inaccessible to researchers. “I strongly believe that our natural heritage should remain within the country,” Prasad says. But at the moment, he sees no choice for his fossils but to “deposit them in a well-curated museum abroad with a research tradition and good conservation practices.”
As a remedy for the crisis, Indian and foreign scientists have lobbied for the creation of a Smithsonian-style institution. “India critically needs a national repository for scientifically important fossils,” Hughes says. A comprehensive fossil repository, Sahni adds, would be indispensable not only for public education, but also for the discipline. “Suppose we get a sample from Vastan: an ankle bone of a rabbit. How will you identify it? In France, Germany, and [the] U.S. you have active people working on this and they have each bone of each living animal. So, they can compare. But in India, we have nothing like this,” he says. “It’s a big loss to our science.”
Indian officials appear to be unmoved. The government is “agnostic vis-a-vis the various science disciplines,” says Ashutosh Sharma, secretary of the Department of Science & Technology in New Delhi, which funds much of India’s basic research. His agency would be willing to “fill any policy gaps,” he says, but it has not seen a need for a special effort to rejuvenate paleontology.
The flame of Indian paleontology may be guttering, but a few recent developments have buoyed spirits. In February 2016, a team from the University of Delhi, Kutch University, and the universities of Kiel and Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany unveiled a 150-million-year-old, nearly complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur. Found in Lodai village in Gujarat, the specimen of the marine reptile is “the first intact and near complete fossil skeleton of an extinct Jurassic reptile from South Asia,” says Prasad, who led the excavation.
Another big find came last August, when the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, which maintains a vaunted paleontology section, announced that its researchers had unearthed at least seven specimens of a 245-million-year-old long-horned reptile from the Satpura Gondwana Basin in Madhya Pradesh. The Triassic period find, which they have named Shringasaurus indicus, overturned the notion that horned species were exclusive to dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, some 100 million years later.
At least one venerated institution is hoping for a revival. BIPS, founded in 1946—making it one of the oldest institutions in the country—is expanding. The institute once focused exclusively on paleobotany. Thanks to a hefty budget boost from the Indian government, it’s broadening to cover all paleosciences. New lab facilities, a museum, and a fossil repository are under construction. The aim, says Bajpai, is to turn the institute into “one of the best labs in earth sciences in India”—and perhaps a national repository for India’s most important fossil collections.
But Sahni and others say their field needs something that is even more important, and harder to provide, than adequate funding and legal protection for sites. India needs to instill in the public a respect for the country’s paleontological riches. And that’s intertwined with improving livelihoods in rural India—and creating economic incentives to preserve fossil sites. “Unless people have a stake in protecting sites,” Sahni says, “they will continue to get destroyed.”