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Wadi Hitan: Clues to whale evolution.

Wadi El-Hitan in Egypt is a well-known Unesco World Heritage Site. It preserves an extraordinary quantity of archaic fossil whales including those of exceptionally high-quality preservation. Wadi El-Hitan has a continuous scientific interest, it is a site worthy of conservation, and it is a site of proven sustainable development of ecotourism appealing to national and international markets. Wadi El-Hitan is under protection by the following laws: Law No 102/1983 provides the legal framework and prime minister's decree No 943 /1989 established the Protected Area of Wadi El-Rayan.

Law No 4/1994 provides the rules governing the granting of licensees and prime minister's decree No 264/1994 promulgates the regulations.

Wadi El-Hitan, Whale Valley, lies within the Fayoum province, and forms a part of Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area (WRPA). It's located in the Western Desert of Egypt, 150 km south-southwest of Cairo and 90 km west of Fayoum City, contains invaluable fossil remains of the earliest, and now extinct, suborder of whales, Archaeoceti. The totally dry Wadi El-Hitan is a distinct area within the WRPA, and lies c.40 km west of the lakes among an attractive and distinctive desert landscape of wind-eroded pillars of rock, surrounded by sand dunes, hills, cliffs and escarpment-bounded plateaux. Wadi El-Hitan property comprises a rectangular core area of c.20, 015ha, (c. 12km x 16km square) defined by latitude/longitude co-ordinates, with a 5,885ha buffer zone. The property is nominated for its fossil values, which are centred on the fossils of ancient whales from the earliest, and now extinct, suborder of whales, the Archaeoceti (or archaeocetes). These fossils represent one of the major stories of evolution: the emergence of the whale as an ocean-going mammal from a previous life as a land-based animal. This is the most important site in the world for the demonstration of this stage of evolution. It portrays vividly the form and life of these whales during their transition. The number, concentration and quality of such fossils here is unique, as their accessibility and setting in an attractive and protected landscape. The fossils of El-Hitan show the youngest archaeocetes, in the last stages of losing their hind limbs. Other fossil material in the site makes it possible to reconstruct the surrounding environmental conditions of the time.

This Wadi is characterised by its magnificent and peculiar geomorphological features due to the severe action of wind erosion on the sedimentary rocks of different resistances. Isolated hills, hillocks of peculiar shape sculptured by the wind action, earth pillars and the curious huge globular masses possessing internal concentric bandings, enveloped by larger ones, so-called battikh (water melon).

In 2000, there was a need to establish the overall management direction for Wadi El-Hitan with respect to protection and development. Presently, Wadi El-Hitan is zoned as "special protection" in the WRPA management plan, however the management plan, states that this zone is fully under investigation in order to determine a visitor use and education plan for the area and appropriate rules for the zone. This management plan direction achieved through a permanent presence within the area for its management (supported by infrastructure, equipment's, trained young people...etc.).

In 2005 a plan was developed the area comprising the following steps:

l Establishing a good track to Wadi El-Hitan.

l Closing all the entrances using natural existences as mountain formations...etc.

l Establishing an administrative building, a parking place, a camping place, a wc.

l Establishing an open air museum.

l Establishing foot paths to the well-chosen fossil sites.

l Support the educational and communicational programmes.

l Develop environmental tourist programmes.

l Activate scientific research locally and nationally.

l Establish a self-mechanism to support the site financially.

The Fossil sites are protected and managed by zoning the core valley into an exhibition area of about 2sqkm and research area representing the rest of the valley. The open air museum of Wadi El-Hitan is currently enhanced with light management structures for awareness and exhibition purposes.

Visitor numbers has increased from more than 4000 up to about 14,000 during 2010. Logistics and self-financing mechanism is still an issue, however, efforts are being made to allow operation and maintenance to be shared by different parties such as tour operators and other stakeholders.

Today Wadi El-Hitan is being lighted by solar power and will have the 1st climatic change museum in Egypt in the beginning of 2015, and we are establishing the 1st vertebrate paleontology school in Egypt; five students were trained in Wadi El-Hitan, in order to develop the work locally. We have signed a protocol with Mansura University in order to teach the students about managing natural resources, managing Heritage sites and Unesco convention.

Wadi El-Hitan is unique for its fossils, geology and team. The team has a vision which is 'This exceptional fossil record and inspirational landscape is protected for next generations, and provides enjoyment, knowledge and benefits to the people of Fayoum, Egypt and all the World'. The team has certain objectives:

Protection: To protect and manage Wadi El-Hitan as a World Heritage Area, in line with international standards and with Egypt's international commitments.

Benefits: To provide social and economic benefits to the people of Fayoum through sustainable development and marketing of the World Heritage Area.

Education & Inspiration: To help visitors to the World Heritage Area experience and understand this globally important resource.

Research: To promote research in the WHA, especially for geology and paleontology, that supports protection, management and expanding of human knowledge.

Finally, we can say that we have achieved our goal which is "Wadi El-Hitan is being managed according to the best criteria for the World Heritage Area and has been developed as a new international eco-tourism destination, and a globally important research site".

l Mohammed Sameh Antar is the Director of the Department of Geology and Paleontology, Nature Conservation Sector, Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency

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Publication:Gulf Times (Doha, Qatar)
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Jun 29, 2014
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