Dinosaur footprints in Pakistan have survived glaciation, mining and government graffiti. But can the preservation of Pakistan's paleontological heritage prevail over plans to build roads in Baluchistan's "dinosaur
I first heard about dinosaurs from my grandfather when I was child. But it was only in 2013 that I really understood more about these creatures, during group research at my second Afghanistan Today workshop.
I certainly didn’t expect there to be 67-million year-old dinosaur footprints stamped visibly on Pakistan’s terrain until I met Sadiq Malkani, the deputy director of the Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP) who gave us a fascinating slideshow talk about our country’s paleontological heritage.
Most people don’t know we have one. Finds of prehistoric remains are extremely rare in Pakistan still, but many of those made so far are in my province Baluchistan.
Traces of Jurassic Pak
One of the most important finds is the vertical trackway of a ‘titanosaurian sauropod’, footprints left by a giant four-legged plant eater in the Soor Maghzay area near my hometown of Zhob. To see these tracks with my own eyes I recently drove two hours to the mountainous area with a companion.
Hiking along loose rock paths in the cold we occasionally encountered locals who would shrug or vaguely motion us onwards when asked for directions.
After an hour we reached what we thought was our destination and scoured the hillside. Nothing. We returned to our vehicle and waited a while, debating what to do. Then we saw an elderly man making his way along the road towards us.
I asked him about Soor Maghzay and he pointed to a completely different hill. Twenty minutes later we pulled over and were stopped in our own tracks by an amazing sight. There they were, giant oval and kidney-shaped footprints stamped into the ancient rock.
AT correspondent Moeen Mandokhail visits the dinosaur tracks in his home region of Baluchistan. (Photos: Moeen Mandokhail)
Although we hadn’t doubted the existence of the prints, seeing is indeed fully believing. And it was only when I laid eyes on them and ran my hands over their contours that I could appreciate what this was.
Set in a ten-metre high sandstone slab left upturned by glaciation are the tracks that weighed between 30 and 50 tons, according to geologist Malkani. The animal's thigh-bone alone, says Malkani, was around two-metres long.
There are several vertical sauropod tracksites in the world, notably in the Pyrenees and in Bolivia. In Pakistan there are also more tracks at Mala Khel, Khuzdar, Barkhan and in Mianwali.
But one of the unique features of the Zhob trackway is that they show how the creature slipped in mud while walking. It’s an incredible moment in far distant time that was preserved against unbelievable odds. These prints "may be the first in the world or at least Asia" to tell such a story, says Malkani.
Properly studied, they can help determine evolutionary aspects of Pakistan's giant prehistoric plant eaters, their means of moving (locomotion), and possibly give some clues about their social behaviour.
Road to oblivion
But if the rigours of shifting continental shelves and glaciation were not test enough, for several years the site was in danger of being blasted for ballast for a road construction project. A number of other dinosaur tracks in the area were already destroyed.
Then they endured the indignity of ‘government graffiti’. As is not uncommon for government departments to do to promote their work, local agriculture officials have recently painted the slab with the words “The prosperity of farmers is the prosperity of Pakistan”.
But the roadwork has finished and the trackways are safe - for now. Meanwhile, the region’s biggest dinosaur treasures are only really just coming to light.
Initial finds by Malkani and also US palaeontologists in 2000 indicate an incredible underground heritage in this region. And because of the loose shale composition of much of the terrain, bones are relatively easy to recover.
"Graveyard and dinosaur paradise"
One visiting American paleontologist found three giant crocodile vertebrae in his first 15 minutes of digging near the town of Vitakri, said Malkani, who calls this area a "graveyard and dinosaur paradise".
But the story of the Zhob trackway hopefully doesn’t simply end with the road excavators moving on. There is now discussion among enthusiasts to try to get the site formally preserved, and even cast a replica of the slab for public display.
Perhaps one day excited classes of school children and adults with equally wide eyes will run their hands over the prints of the cast in Quetta or Islamabad as I did in the hills on that chilly day.
Maybe they will step beneath a reconstruction of the legs that made the prints, and watch a film about how this incredible beast slipped in the mud 67 million years ago.
In such troubled times in Pakistan, where so much has been lost amid so much pain in recent years, a project like that can only be good news.