History takes back seat in the dinosaur valley

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 June, 2010, 12:00am

A black coach pulls up at the entrance to the sunlit valley and a young tour guide with a weary face appears at the door, soon to be pushed from the bus by a dozen excited, elderly tourists.

A grandmother says in a dignified Shanghai accent: 'Comrades, let's loot some bones.'

The crowd cheers and heads to the entrance. No one pays attention to the tour guide, who tries to catch up, saying: 'Ladies and gentleman, welcome to World Dinosaur Valley.'

World Dinosaur Valley is the latest name for the dinosaur site in Ana village, in Yunnan's Lufeng county, about an hour's drive east of the provincial capital Kunming .

The name sounds good to business people and county officials but is somewhat misleading. The dinosaur fossils on display were found on top of a ridge, not in the valley. But it certainly attracts tourists, with more than six million having visited the site in less than two years and daily numbers increasing rapidly.

The Ana site, discovered 15 years ago, stunned palaeontologists because of the quantity and quality of its fossils. They included several previously unknown species and not just dinosaurs, but even small plants, fishes and turtles, all fossilised in breathtaking detail.

'This is where the Jurassic returns to life,' said Professor Dong Zhiming , China's foremost dinosaur expert.

One would assume that such an important site would be carefully managed by the government. But in today's China, where money is king, the Ana site is seen by local authorities as a gold mine that will lift the backwater county out of poverty, rather than a site for scientific research.

The man who stumbled across the site 15 years ago, Ana villager Luo Jiayou , was surprised when he tripped over some half-buried, fossilised vertebrae during an after-dinner stroll. The people living in the remote village were no strangers to fossils - they were always bumping into them while walking around - but what surprised Luo was the sheer size of the vertebrae he found.

He picked up two fossilised vertebrae pieces - weighing a total of a dozen kilograms - and carried them to the county government headquarters, 20 kilometres away. Staff at the county museum had never seen any so big before.

They followed Luo to the site and slowly uncovered a nearly undisturbed dinosaur graveyard that ranks among the best fossil sites in the world.

Back in 1938, Dr Young Chung-chien , now considered the founding father of palaeontology in China, found the fossils of a new dinosaur species in Lufeng. His discovery, which he named Lufengosaurus, was one of the oldest dinosaurs known at the time and the first by a Chinese scientist.

But the decades that followed were marked by war and political chaos, and Lufeng was largely forgotten by the world of palaeontology.

Local people would occasionally find strangely shaped fossils. Without knowing what they were, they turned some into containers for oil lamps and some into toys or amulets. Most of the time, heavier 'bones' were used to mend pigsties.

A private real estate developer, Zhejiang Jinshidai Stock Holdings, took over the site in 2006 and has spent 600 million yuan (HK$685 million) turning it into a theme park, with carousels and Ferris wheels.

Construction workers, not researchers, are on the site these days. In the past decade, palaeontologists around the world rushed to the site and retrieved more than 70 dinosaurs, but more remain buried, some just centimetres under the soil.

A 100 million yuan museum has been built over the site and the next excavation might not happen for decades, if ever. 'The epic of dinosaur hunting has come to an end,' Dong said.

The epic of dinosaur tourism, on the other hand, has only just started.

Lu Wen , the theme park's director of operations, says tourists have good reason to visit.

Dinosaur fossils are usually fragments, and in most museums a complete skeleton consists of more replicas than real fossils. But in Ana, replicas are rare.

'You may always wonder whether it is real or not when looking at the countless bones of a 30-metre-long dinosaur,' Lu said. 'In other museums it is an understandable concern, but in our museum it is totally unnecessary. We have more fossils than we can display. The chances are good that you will never see a replica.'

And little is allowed to get between visitors and the displays. With a slight stretch, one can easily touch a fossil. The museum has even put a giant humerus fossil on a desk so that visitors can touch a real dinosaur. It is probably the most touched fossil in the world, with even President Hu Jintao having laid his hands on it.

But the tourists who bring tens of millions of yuan to the park a year are not always satisfied with just seeing and touching.

Exhibition manager Wang Tao says some tourists snap off a souvenir bone or two. It seems to be a nationwide problem: the park has sent two dinosaurs to Shanghai for the World Expo and they are now missing a couple of tail bones.

As the park's general counsel of science, Dong, 70, spends most of his time in his study, 'playing' with newly discovered fossils. But once a month, he ventures into the park, where tourists mob him for photo opportunities and ask all sorts of odd questions, such as how dinosaurs had sex.

He says that what grates most are the unforgivable scientific mistakes made by the business people.

'I tend not to come down often because scientific imprudence is almost everywhere I look and it hurts my eyes,' Dong said. The mistakes range from the crippled legs of Tyrannosaur models to missing fingers of a Pterosaur, incorrectly labelled as a flying dinosaur.

'It's a pain to deal with these mistakes. But I try not to be too demanding,' he said. 'The dinosaur theme park is a business, not science. And it is a new business that involves lots of risk. I really appreciate what they have achieved.'

Yu Qinzhong the park's general manager, said Zhejiang Jinshidai's board had a hard time agreeing on the park blueprint, which will see total investment of 1.6 billion yuan. The company was more familiar with building residential apartments and board members knew that only one in 10 mainland theme parks is profitable.

But agree they did, and more than four square kilometres of waste land was turned into a tropical forest with paved roads and huge buildings. Before long a five-star hotel and dozens of country villas will open. A car park with space for 1,500 cars has been created.

And, perhaps even more amazingly, the project started to turn a profit after just a year of operation.

'The reason why we made the investment, and really why we make a profit, is the enormous support from the government,' Yu said. 'The project can dramatically improve the county's and even the prefecture's tourism sector, so the government is determined to turn it into a success. In China, government support is the key to the success of any business project.'

The curator of World Dinosaur Valley's museum, Pan Shigang, said some people were concerned that a private company was being allowed to manage and protect a national treasure.

'People tend to think that the government is more trustworthy,' Pan said. 'But the fact is, many fossils have been exposed in the open air for years because of a lack of public funding for excavation.'

Now, with the private company in charge, applications for funding to evacuate a new site were much more straightforward. All a researcher had to do was give the general manager a call, Pan said.

The dinosaur theme park has changed the lives of almost all of Ana's villagers. They spend less time in their fields and more time working part time for the park.

Luo, who made the discovery that changed everything, has become a professional fossil repairer, working under the envious gaze of tourists.

He did not get rich from discovering the site. The 1,000 yuan Luo earns a month was not enough for his wife, who left him and their young son two years ago.

However, Luo says he will stick with the job for the rest of his life, and not only because it has turned him into a national celebrity.

Almost every bone in the museum has passed through his hands. 'As soon as my hands touch the fossils, my thoughts drift to the past and all my miseries are gone,' he says.