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Preserving Easter Island

Each year, nearly 25,000 travelers visit Easter Island (Rapa Nui); most come to see the moai—massive stone statues weighing up to 300 tons that are spread across the Chilean island. These mysterious figures, thought to have been carved 500 to 1,200 years ago, have weathered more than five centuries of South Pacific storms. But archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project, has noticed the moai's carved details disappearing. Made of pressed volcanic ash, the stones are particularly susceptible to erosion, a process that threatens to erase clues to their origins and endanger the local tourism industry.

Now a major conservation effort is in progress. Under UNESCO's oversight, local authorities have partnered with a German company, Denkmalpflege Maar, to begin treating the stones with a chemical that should prevent further environmental damage and stop the widening cracks that have formed. A protective substance is currently being tested on the island; work on the statues should begin in 2005.

The project, however—estimated to last five years and cost $12.4 million—is still in need of funding. "The Chilean government can't afford to invest the money right now," explains the island's mayor, Petero Edmunds Paoa. He and Stefan Maar, the CEO of Denkmalpflege Maar, have been soliciting international donors. (To contribute to the conservation fund, contact Stefan Maar at info@maar.de.) At press time, $200,000 had been raised. "Losing these statues would have an enormous effect on tourism," says Ron Van Oers, who works for UNESCO's World Heritage Center. "The moai have a story to tell the world."

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