International Fossil Laws
& Codes of Conduct
With increasing public interest in paleontology, more and more people are willing to pay money for well preserved fossils. Famous paintings may be one thing, but dinosaurs are quite another. The increased demand has led to fossil theft and smuggling. Fossils are smuggled from China, Russia, Australia and then sold to wealthy private collectors. Smuggling is big business in the fossil world. Many countries, such as China, Mongolia and South Africa do not permit the export of their fossils. Laws and promised punishment are often not enough to deter fossil poachers, as the price received for the fossils is likely to be a far greater sum than any fine. (17)
Hundreds of specimens of Confuciusornis, an early bird fossil from China, have been smuggled out of China. The Chinese government has declared that no non-government agency may excavate these bird fossils. The price smugglers are willing to pay for these birds is tempting, however, as it equals the pay gained after many months of farm work. Jin Meng, a former staff member of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing now teaching at UMASS Amherst, reports that researchers have urged the Chinese government to tighten fossil laws. It has not yet been determined how the fossils are smuggled out of China and into the West. They may come through Japan, Taiwan or Hong Kong. (17)
In 1991, a large slab of rock, which contained 570-million-year-old Ediacaran fossils, was stolen from a site in the Ediacara Hills of the Flinder's Ranges in South Australia. The slab later turned up in a Tokyo warehouse, and an investigation led to the seizure of more Australian fossils. There is a great controversy over what exactly these Ediacaran fossils represent. If the slab had disappeared into someone's personal collection scientists would be that much further from the solution to the debate.
Although Australia has strict fossils export laws, it is relatively easy for a commercial collector to claim that the fossil in question had left the country before the advent of the 1986 Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act. The government of Western Australia is putting together a law which will make collecting fossils without a permit illegal. Critics point out that this law will not dissuade avid amateur collectors because, as Tony Thulburn at the University of Queensland, Brisbane says: "They want specimens for their own collections, not to sell." He believes that amateur collectors are responsible for the 1996 theft of two Stegosaurus footprints taken from a site sacred to the local Rubibi Aboriginal community. (17)
Mongolia owns all fossils found within its borders. Any fossil originating from Mongolia would have to been smuggled out. I would imagine that the smugglers would claim that the fossils were from some other country. Tourists were fined tens of thousands of dollars after buying fossil dinosaur eggs in Mongolia's capital city. A Japanese paleontologist claims to have observed many illegal excavations while visiting the Gobi desert. (17)
After the collapse of communism in 1990, the Russian economy took a turn for the worse, forcing many institutions to come up with money in new and creative ways. Apparently some researchers at the Paleontological Institute in Moscow thought selling fossils from the museum's collection was a good fund raiser. In 1992 15 Labyrinthodont skulls were stolen. The display case was found locked and empty, indicating an inside job. In 1994 one of the ancient amphibian skulls was recognized by a German paleontologist who worked hard to get the fossil back to its rightful home in Russia. (3)
Dinosaurs were a worldwide phenomenon. Skeletons are rarely preserved in their entirety. No dinosaurs have ever been found in Japan and few have turned up in Europe. Here is the States we're practically tripping over them. Relatively speaking. Dinosaur lovers and fossil hounds come from all over the world to large fossil shows held in Denver and Tucson. Everyone loves (and wants) a dinosaur. Most countries have strict fossil laws, but America doesn't, and foreign collectors know this. (11)
There is a big problem with fossil theft and the smuggling of fossils off of federal land. Thefts have become much more frequent over the past decade. A piece of a Tyrannosaurus rex jawbone which was stolen from UC Berkeley in 1995 was later found at the home of a German collector. Fossil crimes rarely begin and end within a single country. Each year hundreds of fossils are illegally excavated from federal land each year. Paleontologist Mark Goodwin: "It's a worldwide problem. It's felt by scientists around the world." (5)
The Western United States is the most fossiliferous part of the country. Most of the land is owned by the U.S. government. The only people who are allowed to remove vertebrate fossils from federal land are professional paleontologists working for museums or educational institutions.
"A lot of times, we find out that something's been taken because we find a hole." Ms. Beastly, paleontologist for the U.S, Forest Service (9) Fossil thieves often use crude methods to extract the fossils, hacking at the surrounding rock with screwdrivers or shovels. (2) In some cases flat-bed trucks have been reported, as well as concrete saws and even helicopters. On the other hand, it has been pointed out that a four wheel drive vehicle carrying rakes and shovels and other implements of destruction is not in and of itself suspicious, because prospecting is legal in many areas. There is also that fact that property lines are very often ambiguous, so that a collector may think that they are digging on a privately owned ranch, when in actuality they have ventured onto public land. (9)
The Bureau of Land Management alone has to keep track of activities on about 18 million acres. (9) Add to that other agencies and its no surprise so many fossil thieves get away with their crimes. "There's certainly evidence out there in the field that large-scale collecting on public land is going on, and we just haven't managed to solve the cases on identify the folks who are doing it. We've got a lot of land and it's relatively easy for people to go out and not get caught." --David Kubichek Assistant U.S. Attorney in Casper, Wyoming (9)
Although many countries have their own laws concerning the fate of fossils and fossil hunters, most foreign law enforcement has better things to do than chase down fossils smuggled out of the United States (or anywhere else for that matter!). Many of the fossils do not have a high enough monetary value to be worth the effort, though they may be priceless to science. (2)
To make matters worse, paleontologists have reported that ongoing excavations have been stolen overnight. (7) Half excavated dinosaur skeletons have a tendency to disappear...maybe they should develop dinosaur tracking collars?
Many sources agree that the perpetrators were not one group of people, but probably a mix of commercial collectors, amateur collectors and professional paleontologists who "...have the attitude that they spent a lot of time and money becoming paleontologists, and therefore they have the right." (9)
Marion Zenker, a commercial fossil dealer for the Black Hills Institute is quoted as saying: "We're one of the largest earth science supply houses in the world. If there were a huge black market out there, we would know about it." (2) This struck me as a most wonderfully evasive answer. In my opinion, there probably is a substantial black market for fossils, and the people at the BHI probably do know about it.