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Quarrying is destroying the fossil treasures in Khonmoh in Kashmir

Fossilised rocks on the Zabarwan hills in Khonmoh

Fossilised rocks on the Zabarwan hills in Khonmoh | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

From the heart of Srinagar, you can see the rugged slopes of the Zabarwan hills some 13 km away. A dusty road takes you to the less-green slopes of the range in Khonmoh, which Shafkat Dar has traversed since he was a child. Now 55, Dar has been collecting small rocks with mysterious patterns from these hills. “Some stones have symmetrical leaf patterns and some have an impression of something that looks like a fish. These are strewn all over the place,” he says.

It really doesn’t take much time to spot a rock with interesting patterns. But Dar, who owns an orchard nearby, does not know their age or the mystery behind their intricate patterns, like most others in the valley.

Watch | How quarrying is destroying the fossil treasures at Khonmoh in Kashmir

These are, in fact, fossils of marine life, millions of years old. The Guryul ravine in Khonmoh is said to have witnessed one of the largest mass extinction events 252 million years ago (see box).

The Great Dying
The fossil beds of the Zeewan-Khonmoh belt were formed when Kashmir was still submerged under the Tethys Sea. The Guryul ravines possess geological records of the Permian period, millions of years before dinosaurs roamed the planet. The site also bears evidence of the Permian-Triassic extinction event, also known as the Great Dying, which took place around 252 million years ago, and wiped out 70% to 90% of flora and fauna. When the Indian plate started drifting northward, towards the Eurasian plate,  and created the Himalayas, the water drained off the rising land and exposed the aquatic life. More recent research suggests that this mass extinction was because of global warming, which left ocean life without oxygen and unable to breathe. G.M. Bhat, from the Department of Geology, Jammu University, says that although ocean anoxia (absence of oxygen) has long been believed to be a direct mechanism that caused the mortality of organisms, little has been published on the extent and timing of this anoxia in Gondwana, a supercontinent that began to break up during the Jurassic period.

Buzzing trucks

“Primordial corals, small invertebrates, plants and a group of mammal-like reptiles known as therapsids were prominent during the Permian-Triassic age at Guryul,” says Abdul Majid Butt, a former bureaucrat who now who runs the Centre for Himalayan Geology.

Quarrying activity that takes place here every day

Quarrying activity that takes place here every day | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Butt has been visiting the place for years to make sure locals and authorities understand its significance. In fact, he saw the richness of the area waning when the entire Khonmoh area was opened up for quarrying by the government in the late 90s. Except for nature lovers, no one would walk around in the dusty area that buzzes with trucks entering and leaving with stones of different shapes and sizes. Researchers who recently surveyed the area warned that Kashmir’s expanding cement industry in the last two decades has crushed fossils to cement.

Specimens from the Triassic Age here were first documented by Sir Walter Lawrence, an Indian Civil Service in the late 1800s. Ever since, the place remained of great interest for geologists around the globe. But that was not the case with State authorities who allowed cement factories here: there are some nine cement factories operational today in the area.

Treasures from the past

Now, however, the ball has been set rolling to turn this site into a fossil park. The Environmental Policy Group (EPG), an umbrella group of environmentalists and civil society members, is trying to save whatever remains of these treasures from the past. An MoU was signed in 2018 between the Penn Dixie Fossil Park in the U.S. and EPG to support the setting up of a fossil park.

The park will have a museum where fossils are exhibited. “Both tourists and researchers will find the fossil museum worth a visit: it will give us a peek into the past and what happened during the great extinction,” says G.M. Bhat, a professor at the Department of Geology, University of Jammu, who sees the Guryul range as a geo-heritage site, possessing educational, scientific, aesthetic and cultural value.  

The mass extinction event is also captured in rocks in other parts of the world such as Armenia, Pakistan, Arctic Canada, Greenland, Spitsbergen, Tibet, China, Siberia, Iran and northern Alaska. “However, it is best preserved in Kashmir,” says Bhat. He and a professor at the University of Massachusetts, U.S., first wrote to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and sought his intervention to declare a 4 area as a protected space in Guryul. 

Change is in the air

At present, 28 geoscientists from 14 prestigious global universities and research institutions are working on these rocks with the Jammu University, the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology and Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences. 

Patterned stones picked up from the hills

Patterned stones picked up from the hills | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Funds have been earmarked for the development of the fossil park by the Srinagar Smart City Ltd and the Department of Tourism. Finally, students, tourists and geology enthusiasts will get access to the remnants of a geological event, a devastating and enormous mass extinction.

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2022 7:10:37 pm |