Dera Bugti operation: Largest mammal fossils may have been bombed into oblivion

Published: April 7, 2012

A 3-D virtual reconstruction of the mammal in its original habitat. PHOTOGRAPH: STÉPHANE COMPOINT

Pakistani scientist Dr Qureshi with the French team. PHOTO: DR QURESHI Schoolchildren in Dera Bugti observe a fragment of Baluchitherium’s jaw. PHOTOGRAPH: STÉPHANE COMPOINT Encampment at the excavation site. PHOTOGRAPH: STÉPHANE COMPOINT The team of scientists, on site. PHOTOGRAPH: STÉPHANE COMPOINT A 3-D virtual reconstruction of the mammal in its original habitat. PHOTOGRAPH: STÉPHANE COMPOINT Nawab Bugti at the site of reconstruction of the mammal’s skeleton. PHOTOGRAPH: STÉPHANE COMPOINT Fossils of Baluchitherium believed to have been collateral in 2006 operation against 
Nawab Akbar Bugti. ILLUSTRATION : JAMAL KHURSHID
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, a far greater 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

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

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

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

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.”

edited by Gulraiz Khan 

Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2012.

Reader Comments (32)

  • mr. righty rightist
    Apr 7, 2012 - 8:02AM

    To people like Tarek fatah, hasan Nisar, Nasir naji who always claim that the contribution of Muslims to science is a BIG ZERO…here’s an example of Muslims’ contribution to science.

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  • Apr 7, 2012 - 8:41AM

    Incredibly sad in so many ways…

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  • Ali
    Apr 7, 2012 - 10:27AM

    3000 fossils in 10 years, seems like subcontinent has always been giving a deaf year to contraceptions.

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  • sick of this nonsense
    Apr 7, 2012 - 10:29AM

    @mr. righty rightist:
    Muslims contribution to science out weighs most civilizations. Its only been after the 1800s that muslim scientists were in a decline. Your comments have really become an eye sore here in tribune.

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  • Adnan Alam Awan
    Apr 7, 2012 - 11:17AM

    Yes,,these fossils were part of our great cllection of Fossils,,,very sad to know all this that they have been lost. Adnan Alam Awan from Geological Survey of Pakistan.

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  • Prof.Shahida Kazi
    Apr 7, 2012 - 11:22AM

    This is the most shocking news I have heard .We Pakistanis are completely unaware of our ancient heritage ,and still many of us believe that our history started with the coming of Mohammed Bin Qasim.All major archaelogical discoveries in our country have been made by foreigners and this was the biggest discovery of all.And this is how much we cared for its importance..I wouldnt be surprised if tomorrow we hear that the site of Moenjadoro,or Harappa or Taxila has been destroyed in a bomb blast.

    Fossils are part of the world heritage and cannot be allowed to remain the custody of a particular individual or family.I

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  • wahaj
    Apr 7, 2012 - 11:29AM

    “Besides the Baloch chieftain, Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was targeted and killed in the operation, a far greater casualty was the fossilised remains of the largest mammal that walked the earth – Baluchitherium.” – how can destroying a mammals fossil (however large it may be) be a greater casualty then a human life?!

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  • maverick
    Apr 7, 2012 - 11:49AM

    big deal :P

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  • Dude
    Apr 7, 2012 - 12:24PM

    Who cares, they’re dead anyways?

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  • Yoda
    Apr 7, 2012 - 12:28PM

    That’s not true “raw is war”. I see what you’re doing here, you’ve probably been visiting a couple of anti-religion message boards and are borrowing a common atheists’ argument against Christianity and applying it to Islam. However, the Quran does not offer a timetable for the creation of the universe. In fact–even in the case of Christianity, this “calculation” of when the universe was created was done by a misguided Bishop using the bible to come up with a timeline.

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  • Zulaikha
    Apr 7, 2012 - 12:50PM

    Baloch and Balochistan heritage is systematically targeted. There is not a single museum, heritage site and place to exhibit Balochistan’s rich history. This is part of the state policy to undermine Balochistan’s culture, heritage, natural wealth and the people.

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  • Pinky
    Apr 7, 2012 - 12:51PM

    what military operation? kiya, kub,kahan??!! Bugti committed suicide (according to musharraf anyway)

    like the name “Baluchitherium.”
    dont be disappointed, dear compatriots..its next to impossible that the beast lived alone..we will find another of its kind :)

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  • Shah
    Apr 7, 2012 - 12:54PM

    Sad story. I think the citizens can make efforts to create that life-like replica of the Baluchitherium.

    BTW, I might be wrong, but I think you meant to write “a deaf ear” in the second last para instead of “deaf year”

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  • double-standard
    Apr 7, 2012 - 12:55PM

    such mammels are still found in balochistan .I swear

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  • Mj
    Apr 7, 2012 - 12:55PM

    A terrible tragedy and a huge loss. Fossils belong in a museum or a research center, not some old man’s house.

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  • adi
    Apr 7, 2012 - 1:05PM

    the next we will read on this pro PPP paper called ET “Dubai was considering to nickname it Dera Bugti of Middle East but due to the destruction in 2006 army operations it changed its mind”

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  • Uzair
    Apr 7, 2012 - 1:14PM

    @sick of this nonsense: Your statement: “Muslims contribution to science out weighs most civilizations. Its only been after the 1800s that muslim scientists were in a decline.” is completely without basis in fact. I am a scientist myself (albeit not a “great one”) and have studied the history of science thoroughly. The Muslim scientists had major contributions for a couple of hundred years, but almost no big ones after 1300 AD .

    If you are so sure of your assertion, please provide your list of great Muslim scientists until the 1800s. It will be an eye opener for me and a lot of others, I am sure!Recommend

  • Usman Saeed
    Apr 7, 2012 - 2:10PM

    While its a huge loss from a paleobiological point of view, given that the story has only surfaced now, its a little strange why didn’t they go public with this discovery then in 1999. Why the waited for 7 years. Why all of a sudden this has become so important?
    As for the ones making the jokes above, Dera Bugti wasn’t a archaeological museum. When you are fighting a insurgency, fossils of prehistoric beasts hardly matter. For the scientists who came to our country to make this discovery, I thank them. But they must understand that they only came to our country to do this because they are from a very stable prosperous and even more first world country. I doubt they could have done this during the days of Anglo-French wars.

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  • Apr 7, 2012 - 2:21PM

    Discovery of the fossils of largest mammals in Dera Bugti area is a treasure which belongs to this planet. The world cannot afford to loose these precious fossils. These fossils help mankind understand evolution as an ongoing process. The scientists who have made this unique discovery must not rely on financial assistance from the government of Pakistan or any other institution but contact UNESCO to finance this invaluable project. 30 million years ago our planet had life in this form, there were no humans, so the preservation of these fossils must not be politicized.Recommend

  • mr. righty rightist
    Apr 7, 2012 - 3:07PM

    @Double-standard

    LOL. Yes. They can also be found in independent bungalows in Abattobad.

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  • Ozymandias
    Apr 7, 2012 - 3:21PM

    I always thought the dinosaurs are all in Islamabad?

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  • Basit
    Apr 7, 2012 - 3:30PM

    Why don’t liberals ask how many fossils have been destroyed by trying to bomb taliban by NATO in Afghanistan? Do drones attacking FATA avoid fossils?

    The silliest issue to bash Pakistan by ET.

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  • Nehal
    Apr 7, 2012 - 4:48PM

    Very sad indeed

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  • Ali
    Apr 7, 2012 - 5:18PM

    “‘indiscriminate bombing’ destroyed his home and killed hundreds of his people. “And you’re asking me about dinosaurs?””

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  • Bhai Chargi
    Apr 7, 2012 - 7:51PM

    Liberals can you please be less anti Pakistan and anti Islam. You are worse than our enemies wallah.

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  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Apr 8, 2012 - 12:21AM

    @sick of this nonsense
    your contribution to humor is greater than that of all humorists combined

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  • OldPak
    Apr 8, 2012 - 9:12AM

    Well, the “conservatives” don’t want to “conserve” our historic character or the fossils. The liberals can not liberate Pakistan from the extremists and the doomsayers. When the life & sustenance of an exploding population is at stake everything else is secondary….who care about Muslim inventions or valuable Fossils. The fossil that survived millions are vulnerable when resting on ground without the safety of underground conditions. That’s why the historic excavations of Mohinjodaro & Harrapa are required by international agencies to be reburied for future generation to dig out later due the deterioration, land erosion, thefts, floods and neglect. War, famine and population increase has always destroyed historic monuments and crucial future resources of sustenance in the name of Honor, Food and Sustenance respectively.
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  • Mir Asadullah
    Apr 12, 2012 - 8:16AM

    I quote :Besides the Baloch chieftain, Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was targeted and killed in the operation, a far greater casualty was the fossilised remains of the largest mammal that walked the earth – Baluchitherium.”
    Emphasis are mine.

    Remarkable to note that the writer of this piece considers the bones of a dead animal to be more important than the death of Nawab Akbar Bugti.

    Mir Asadullah.

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  • Mir Asadullah
    Apr 12, 2012 - 8:27AM

    @sick of this nonsense:
    Tell me the name of one, just one, imminent Muslim scientist between 1300 and 1800.
    Where do you live? Let us face the truth boy, instead of snoring in a fantasy world dreamed up by some obscurantist mullahs. That could be the first step towards regaining our lost glory. Self delusion will get us nowhere.

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  • Critical Thinker
    Apr 13, 2012 - 4:23PM

    @raw is war: Perhaps its time for you to begin to ask this very question to yourself that may be Earth and life before than 6000 years ago?

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  • sakeen
    May 24, 2012 - 3:46AM

    Quote :
    Besides the Baloch chieftain, Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was targeted and killed in the operation, emphasized texta far greater casualty was the fossilised remains of the largest mammal that walked the earth – Baluchitherium

    Don’t you know Human life is cheap in Pakistan? Living folk in Pakistan have little or no value. With all the targeted killings as well as indiscriminate killings, sectarian killings, and deaths due to lack of basic and essential neccessaties to sustain life etc that have been going on for as long as I can remember nobody bothers to remember Allah’s warning of the penalty in the Qur’an ” If a person is killed (deliberately) it is as if the whole of mankind has been slain” .This does not apparently put off the ”Muslims” of Pakistan -they just carry on resolutely killing away in the name of God.
    Maybe , one day , far off in the very distant future when the killing stops and the land has turned into a mass graveyard of human bones , then might they attain some value as did the ancient dinosaur and be remembered as a place where violence reigned supreme.

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  • Umer Pakistani
    May 24, 2012 - 10:12AM

    Outright lie that Dera Bugti was bombed, not a single bomb was ever dropped anywhere in Dera Bugti District, least of all a city. I wonder how you managed to collect those facts about bombing of Dera Bugit city.

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