El Niño vs. The Giant Monkey

The mysterious giant birds and other animals etched into the desert near Nazca, Peru, may be in peril. Torrential rains in the Andes this week have sent rivers of mud sweeping across the plains. So far the flooding has only smudged a few lines on the 500-square-kilometer desert canvas, but locals worry that some of the ancient images may be lost if preventative steps aren't taken soon.

Over a millennium ago, people of the Nazca region carved kilometer-long lines and images into the yellow-white clay of a desert plateau on Peru's south coast. More recently, another line has been added--the Pan-American highway, which cuts across several of the designs. The roadwork and El Niño weather patterns are conspiring to destroy the famed artwork, says José Lancho, a local historian of Nazca. Ten of the small bridges that carry the highway across gullies have stopped the flow of silt and runoff from the Andes. The backup at the bridges is creating pools of mud that so far have damaged only a few lines and a small triangle, Lancho says. But if the rains continue, he adds, "there will be more avalanches" that could threaten a monkey, a hummingbird, and other designs. "The famous figures will be endangered."

The Peruvian government is too swamped with damage control in flooded cities to help, says Lancho, who hopes the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will assist in unstopping the bridges or diverting the floods. Although UNESCO pledged to protect the Nazca lines when it designated it a "world heritage site" in 1994, so far "we haven't received any help to protect the figures," Lasco says.

Damage to the Nazca Lines "would be a major loss," says Johan Reinhard, an archaeologist at the Mountain Institute, a nonprofit institution in Franklin, West Virginia. "It could completely wipe out evidence of when and how they were made," he says, as well as any faint lines yet to be discovered. Reinhard interprets the drawings as signs to the water gods. It would be ironic, he adds, if floods were to be their undoing.