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Fossil-rich ravine at mercy of plunderers

Guryul, Jan. 27: One of the world’s richest fossil sites is on sale 18km south of Srinagar — at Rs 600 a truckload.

Quarry owners have been blasting the rocks — with the 260 million-year-old fossils embedded in them — and ferrying out the pieces for the past several years. The chips end in cement factories and the bigger stones are used in building houses.

The state government gets Rs 28 a truck.

Thousands of pre-dinosaur fossils are scattered in the rocks of the Guryul ravine, rated by geologists as the world’s premier site for the study of species from the Permian period (299-251 million years before our time).

These species, felled by the greatest mass extinction ever, are being wiped out a second time.

The most fossil-rich stretch, a little over one square kilometre, houses five quarries, two of them operating now. A large part of the extractions is supplied to cement factory owners at nearby Khunmoh.

Almost 95 per cent of Permian marine species and 70 per cent of terrestrial forms were destroyed in the great mass extinction. The event is etched in stone in several parts of the world, such as Iran and China, but the fossils in these countries are only partially preserved, an expert said.

“The Kashmir section exposed at Guryul ravine is completely preserved and has been known to the geological community since 1886,’’ said G.M. Bhat, geology professor at Jammu University. “We also have more variety in the rock types compared with the Chinese one.”

Parvez Malik, state geology and mining director, said the government declared the site a protected area last year and banned all extraction.

“My quarry has been operational for the last several years,” a quarry owner, Mohammad Amin Chopan, said. “Yes, some government officials have told us there are ‘fossils’ here but we don’t know what these are.”

He said that last year, the government stopped issuing permits to the individual owners — but this was because the right of extraction across the entire area was given to a single contractor. The government continues to collect revenue from the quarrying despite the ban.

Muzaffar Ganai, a Class X student whose father works in a quarry, said he had seen a lot of fossils. “I came across a crow-like one,” he said.

An official in the state government’s geology department said three of the five quarries had closed down recently not because of the ban but because of ownership disputes.

The blasts in the quarries have weakened the mountains so much that parts of them cave in during rain or snow. “The site can be protected only if 300 to 400 metres of it is fenced,” the official added.

Although fossil studies began at the site in 1886, Guryul caught the attention of global geologists only in the 1970s.

“Japanese scientists and the Geological Survey of India (GSI) researched these rocks. A 121-page monograph, published in 1985 from the University of Koyoto, Japan, explained the importance of these fossils,’’ Bhat said.

No studies could be undertaken during the decades of militancy but geologists renewed their interest in Guryul last year.

Canadian geologist M.E. Brookfield visited the site last April, and Jammu University is collaborating with Chinese and Japanese scientists to carry out more studies.

“Professor Brookfield has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to preserve the site as a national heritage. Only a few months ago, the GSI took the matter up with the state government on the instructions of the Prime Minister’s Office,” Bhat said.

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