Onlangse aankondigings oor dinosourusvondste in Golden Gate het die vraag skielik by my laat opkom: Wat van paleo-toerisme vir die sukkelende Vrystaatse ekonomie?
Toe gaan stel ek ondersoek in, en stel vas elders in die wêreld is hierdie aspek met sy nismark groot geld werd. Koppel dit aan bestaande dinge soos wildsplase en argeologiese terreine, en ‘n mens kan dalk iets hiermee doen.
Die gevolg is ‘n omvattende artikel in die volgende uitgawe van die Vrystaatse Sakebulletin.
Die artikel, in die rooi taal, is reeds deur die paleontoloë se hande en my blapse met dié vakgebied platgestryk. – Herman Toerien
Paleo tourism in the FS has huge potential
The recent announcement of the latest find of a unique dinosaur site at Golden Gate, immediately gave rise to the question whether the Free State is ready to seriously tap into the growing international paleo-trourism industry.
Interest groups and the provincial authorities will, however, not find it easy going to include the province as an internationally know paleo-tourist destination. Not a single Free State fossil site is included in the official palaeontology tourist guide for South Africa, compiled by the Department of Arts and Culture.
According to a news release by the National Museum the rocks of the Karoo Basin, including the Free State, contain the most complete record of the origins and evolution of mammals and the earliest dinosaurs, making South Africa one of the top palaeontology destinations in the world. New fossil species are continually being discovered.
The viability of this niche tourism market has the potential to compete with the “Big Five” tourism industry to the country … but requires much planning and effort. At this stage several, seemingly independent actions are undertaken, which combined as ‘n tourism project, could form important cornerstones of such an industry in and around the Free State.
Last year, for e.g, Sanparks announced plans to upgrade the existing fossil train in the Karoo National Park. Plans were also announced to build a R250 million dino centre at Golden Gate, with a first R3 million project already completed.
When the Montana Dinosaur trail was opened in 2005, it drew a total of 196 000 tourists in the first year, and since between 263 000 and more than 300 000 annually. But this necessitated the involvement of 15 sites and museums in 13 communities spread over Montana. Every staff member of these institutions is expected to be ambassadors for the trail.
Paleotourism has become a significant industry at the Maropeng (Sterkfontein) site near Johannesburg, which had internationally become known as the cradle of mankind, with regular organised tours to the different caves on the site.
Yet, the Free State offers some of the most significant paleo-sites, increasing the possibilities of drawing specialised tourists. These include the Vredefort Dome, the site where a extraterrestrial body impacted with earth 2023 million years ago, the Florisbad site near Bloemfontein, the planned Golden Gate dinosaur information centre and the Synapsida information centre at Eskom’s Ingula Pump Storage Facility displaying fossils dating back to 250 million. Well preserved specimens from Ingula are being sent to academic institutions, while other fossils are stored on site for later display in the visitor centre on site or in a museum.
The 2009 fossil discoveries made at Ingula’s upper site, in the Free State, resulted in excitement within local paleontologist circles, as preliminary indications pointed to the possibility of the discovery of some of the largest gorgonopsian skulls ever found.
Gorgonopsians lived prior to the dinosaurs and resembled both mammals and reptiles. They ranged between 1 m and 3 m in length.
About 150 fossils have been removed thus far. Dr. Jennifer Botha-Brink of the National Museum’s paleontology department says they have not recovered complete skeletons, most of the 150 fossils are fragments. They have managed to salvage about 20 which are currently being prepared.
Based on the biostratigraphy of the area they are between 252 and 257 million years old and thus fall within the Permian period. The process of removing the surrounding rock from the fragile fossils was started in January 2011. Following the excavation, they were sent to the National Museum in Bloemfontein.
Palaeontologists appointed by Eskom, complemented by staff from the Bloemfontein National Museum, were on site when the fossil remains were uncovered. Under palaeontologist supervision, contractors assisted in the relocation of fossil-containing rock to a designated site outside the construction footprint to minimise impact on production. This allowed sufficient time for palaeontology staff to investigate fossils for curation. The Ingula fossil finds will add new information to the body of knowledge of this period. The possibility also exists that there may be a new predator species among the finds,” he concludes.
The excavation at a site in Golden Gate has unearthed the 190-million-year-old dinosaur nesting site of the prosauropod dinosaur Massospondylus — revealing significant clues about the complex reproductive behaviour in early dinosaurs.
A new study, published in the prestigious international journal PNas, led by Canadian paleontologist Robert Reisz, together with colleagues from USA, Australia, and The University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, reveals clutches of eggs, many with embryos, as well as tiny dinosaur footprints, providing the oldest known evidence that the hatchlings remained at the nesting site long enough to at least double in size.
According to the authors, the newly unearthed dinosaur nesting ground is more than 100 million years older than previously known nesting sites.
At least ten nests have been discovered at several levels at this site, each with up to 34 round eggs in tightly clustered clutches. The distribution of the nests in the sediments indicate that these early dinosaurs returned repeatedly (nesting site fidelity) to this site, and likely assembled in groups (colonial nesting) to lay their eggs, the oldest known evidence of such behaviour in the fossil record. The large size of the mother, at six metres in length, the small size of the eggs, about six to seven centimetres in diameter, and the highly organized nature of the nest, suggest that the mother may have arranged them carefully after she laid them.
“The eggs, embryos, and nests come from the rocks of a nearly vertical road cut only 25 metres long,” says Reisz, a professor of biology at U of T Mississauga. “Even so, we found ten nests, suggesting that there are a lot more nests in the cliff, still covered by tons of rock. We predict that many more nests will be eroded out in time, as natural weathering processes continue.”
The fossils were found in sedimentary rocks from the Early Jurassic Period in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in South Africa. This site has previously yielded the oldest known embryos belonging to Massospondylus, a relative of the giant, long-necked sauropods of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.
Other areas of significance include the Florisbad site with the National Museum’s Quaternary research station. It is widely known for producing an archaic modern human skull, now dated to c. 260 000 years old. The mammalian remains from the Florisbad spring, dated to between 400 000 and 100 000 years ago, is the type assemblage of the Florisian Land mammal Age and it is a key site for understanding the appearance of modern environments as well as modern human origins in southern Africa. Three osteological collections are housed at the site. It also has a small educational centre, aimed at primary school visits.
Both Sterkfontein and the Vredefort Dome are declared world heritage sites, which should generate tourism in their own right.
Some fossil finds are already part of typical Free State festivities. The annual Paul Roux Sandstone festival includes a visit to fossilized dinosaur foot prints. This may form an important part of more comprehensive paleo-tourism in the province. The Clarence Visual Art festival also includes opportunities to learn more about dinosaurs. Clarence also has a functioning tourism centre (Tel. 058-256-1569).
The National Museum itself is an important paleontological destination. Not only does it contain an impressive display of fossils, the staff are regarded as experts. Last year, John Nyaphuli, the National Museum’s most experienced fossil preparator, was awarded the 2011 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Morris F. Skinner Award. This award is presented for outstanding and sustained contributions to scientific knowledge through the making of important collections of fossil vertebrates and encouraging, training or teaching others towards the same pursuits. Last year, the museum also annouced a mentorship program for fossil preparation lead by Nyapuli.
The Free State had been included on a tour of paleontology and archaeological sites which also included Taung and Kimberley in the Northern Cape. The Klerksdorp based firm which launched the initiative is, however, apparently no longer in business.
It is clear that launching a paleo-tourism industry for the Free State, even if linked to visits in the Northern Cape and Sterkfontein, will only succeed if all role players carefully plan, invest and cooperate.
The Montana project required seed money of $26 000, incredibly little to generate almost 200 000 tourists in the first year.
At present the Free State is visited by 60 000 tourists per annum, spending R54 million. This is only a tiny proportion of the approximate 2 million tourists from abroad visiting South Africa. Together with the 20 million domestic tourists, more than 800 000 people work in the tourist industry.
If the Free State initially manages to draw only one percent of the tourists visiting the Montana Dinosaur trail, an additional 2 000 to 3 000 tourists will visit the province annually. This will generate an additional income of approximately R15 million for the province. The industry would, without a doubt, ain to rather at least ten percent of the Montana numbers.