China's "Jurassic Park" brings new opportunities to locals
Around 180 million years ago, the Lufeng basin with abundant water afforded ideal living conditions for dinosaurs, and the biological heritage from that period continues to affect people's lives today.
Yang Zhongjian, China's pioneer in paleontology, first excavated the skeleton of Lufengosaurus huenei, a herbivorous dinosaur existing in the early and middle Jurassic, with his assistants in 1939. The discovery unveiled one of the world's largest and most significant dinosaur fossil sites spanning the entire early, middle, and late epochs of the Jurassic period.
Since the excavation of the first Lufengosaurus huenei, Lufeng, a county-level city in southwest China's Yunnan Province, has over 120 complete dinosaur fossils unearthed, and thousands more are still waiting underground for future excavations, offering a testament to the biodiversity of ancient Lufeng.
Before the concept of dinosaur fossils gained prominence in Lufeng, locals would stumble upon dinosaur bones, such as vertebrae, in the fields and regard them as remains of "dragon." Some even took those collected bones home to use as containers for oil lamps.
After villagers were occasionally taught basic fossil knowledge, they are now volunteering to report fossil findings to local conservation authorities.
"If the fossils are complete or need to be taken out to prevent destruction, we would dig them up completely," said Wang Tao, director of Lufeng's protection center of dinosaur fossils. "But those that are incomplete or hard to carry are left underground for future excavations."
Local awareness of dinosaur fossils has sparked people's interest in the excavation and assembly of dinosaur skeletons, and a team of semi-professional fossil excavators has been formed under Wang's guidance.
Following an initial year of training, around 20 farmers were entrusted with the relevant responsibility.
Luo Jiayou is one of them who possesses an extensive understanding of paleontology following years of experience handling dinosaur fossils. He first discovered a huge dinosaur graveyard in 1995 and it still has over 400 dinosaur skeletons buried underground.
A year after his finding, he began to learn archaeological excavation techniques from Wang and went about hunting for fossils in the field.
"The condition of excavation work in the field is tough and tiring," said Luo. "But once you immerse yourself in the archaeological work, you will gradually fall in love with it and feel a sense of responsibility to conserve it."
In 2004, a national dinosaur geopark was established in Lufeng, covering an area of more than 100 square km surrounding the fossil sites.
The same year also saw Yunnan Province issue a plan to develop geotourism within the national park. The archaeological treasure has now turned into a tourism fortune.
A dinosaur-themed park, the Dinosaur Valley, was thus built on the dinosaur graveyard which Luo first discovered and opened to the public in 2008.
The park also has the Lufeng Dinosaur Fossil Quarry, which displays over 70 complete dinosaur fossils excavated in Lufeng and features one of the world's largest indoor exhibits of mounted dinosaur skeletons.
Luo is now working as a full-time guide in the museum and teaches basic fossil cleaning and assembling skills to children visiting the place.
"It's a work that requires a sense of responsibility because numerous dinosaurs have existed on Earth but only a few can have their remains preserved as fossils," Luo said.
Like his fellow villagers in A'na, a village near the tourism site, he has witnessed the remarkable transformation of this once ordinary town in Yunnan.
"We didn't even have a single hotel before the theme park was built, but now there are many," Luo said, adding that the remarkable changes have created employment opportunities for the people.
The theme park has become a popular tourist destination. Despite the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, the park recorded some 670,000 visits in 2020 and 1.64 million in 2021, said Qu Kun, an official with the park management.
The tourist inflow brought new opportunities in the form of homestays and agritainment to neighboring villages, laying a solid foundation for its rural revitalization.
Fan Yuan, who was working with an airline company, quit her job and started her own homestay in 2019. During the holiday seasons, all 20 rooms at the homestay would be fully booked.
Regarding future expansion, Fan said she intends to build a cluster of luxury hotels with other homestay owners to attract more youths to visit the place and the dinosaur valley.
As for Luo, he is trying to become a live streamer in an effort to engage more people in fossil preservation.
"Dinosaur fossils are not as mysterious as people think. They share many similar features with modern vertebrates," Luo said.