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When Will the Fossil Smuggling End?

A fossil records the history of life. The discovery and excavation of fossils are of great significance to understanding the evolution of the earth and studying the ancient geography, paleoclimate and conditions for forming minerals. In recent years, however, fossil smuggling in China has intensified and many precious fossils have disappeared onto the black market. At the end of 2001, a photo of a dinosaur fossil appeared on the Internet, which aroused great concern around the world. Within one month, the Nature magazine of Britain and Science of the United States carried four articles in succession talking about the psittacosaurus fossil.

The picture arousing world attention is the fossil of a psittacosaurus, a kind of dinosaur which is 1.8 meters long and 1 meter high, with bristles on its tail. Ferns were their main food. After years of being underground, the photo was e-mailed by a Canadian fossil distributor to some of those on the DINOSAUR Internet mailing list. What makes the fossil unique is that there is a cluster of bristles at the tip of its strong tail. Paleontologists arenít sure of the significance of this hair cluster, but are guessing it might be a primitive feature of all dinosaurs.

"If this is true, the significance will be unusual," said Luis Chiappe of Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Dinosaurs are divided into two orders: Saurischia and Ornithischia. The psittacosaurus belongs to the latter. Scientists have found some dinosaurs from Saurischia order have skin derivations, but not the Ornithischia. If the psittacosaurus proves to have had feathers, it will be a great progress in dinosaur studies.

Underground Trade Obstructs Scientific Research

The psittacosaurus fossil sample was thought to have been found in western Liaoning Province of China, where a large number of fossils of feathered dinosaurs and some well-preserved fossils dating back 125 million years had been discovered. Zhou Zhonghe, researcher with Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology under Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), thought the psittacosaurus fossil might have been smuggled out of China several years ago.

Up until now, the fossil has never been mentioned in any conferences or articles. The photo of the fossil was shown to a few people at the annual vertebrate meeting of North America years ago.

Paleontologists are cautious about a sample obtained from fossil smugglers.

Mark Norell, an expert in Asian dinosaurs from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, pointed out that private fossil trading usually hides the significance of scientific discoveries. No example is more convincing than the psittacosaurus.

"The sample may change our knowledge about dinosaurs, but we can confirm nothing at present, for nobody has studied or published the relic. The fossil should be returned to China, to Chinese museums where people can study it," Norell said.

According to Zhou Zhonghe, established museums worldwide donít want to have any connection with a smuggled fossil, for they are not permitted to get involved with fossils of unknown origin. Norell said they will never allow the fossil to enter their museum. Meanwhile, it is difficult to publish scientific achievements obtained this way in reputable magazines. Most magazines ask authors to provide relevant materials about each relic, for example, the relic code number. Generally speaking, editors in established magazines will not consider articles without relic ode numbers.

Since 1980, many fossils belonging to over 20 biological categories have been found in western Liaoning Province, including the ancient bird fossil group, Confuciusornis -- the earliest bird in the world with beak, Laioning bird -- the oldest ancestor of modern bird and the Beipiao (a city in Liaoning Province) bird and sinornithosaurus, which are unique in the world. Also, the fossils include those of early period mammals, the frog, lizard, tortoise, dragonfly and the earliest angiosperm. The fossil bed in Liaoning has dwarfed all others -- including the Solnhofen area of Germany where Archaeopteryx fossil was found -- whether in species, numbers of fossil or exquisiteness. The fossil bed has much to do with the frequent volcanic activity at an earlier time. Rapid burial kept skeletons intact, and some superbly preserved fossils even include impressions of animal skin and internal organs. This provides rare evidence for the study of primitive birds and other living things as well as restruction of ancient environment.

This explains why the selling and reselling and smuggling of fossils are prevalent in this area. At the end of the 1980s, some businessmen discovered the value of the fish and insect fossils, so they called on the local farmers to go into mountains to dig them up. Then they collected the fossils at a very low price. After passing through hands of several persons, the fossils was smuggled out of China. At the beginning of the 1990s, more and more bird fossils of the Mesozoic era were found, so smugglers turned their eyes to the rather rare species of bird and dinosaur fossils.

Losing a fossil equals losing a period of history. The loss of a precious fossil will bring immeasurable financial loss to a country and its irreplaceable piece of history.

Protecting fossils is to protect science and national cultural heritage. Zhou Zhonghe, CAS researcher with Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, felt great regret over the losing an example of ancient extinct life. The fossil would have enabled great achievements by Chinese scientists through their hard work, but smuggling of the fossil has caused great losses to China and even the world. As a paleontologist, Zhou urged the Chinese government to strengthen protection of the fossil bed in western Liaoning Province.

Fossil Protection Law Needs Perfecting

Fossil smuggling cases in recent years have exposed defects in Chinese laws and regulations in protecting fossils. Illegal fossil dealers purchased fossils like mad from local farmers, and then sold them to private collectors or some museums in foreign countries. What should be noted is that the channel, number and body of the smuggling have changed recently. Smuggling has made its way into normal transport, while smugglers have come to include top intellectuals, even experts in paleontology.

Another reason leading to increased fossil smuggling is loose market management and weak ideas about fossil protection. The state has stipulated that any institution or individual is prohibited from excavating, selling or exporting fossils of ancient extinct life. However, many such fossils can be seen on tourist souvenir markets in Yunnan, Shandong, Hubei, Henan, Sichuan and Liaoning provinces.

At the beginning of the 1990s, many dinosaur eggs were found in the Xixia area of Henan Province, which provide precious field materials for the paleontology study. However, due to imperfect management, the discovery ignited a new round of smuggling. The dinosaur eggs, with a history of more than 200 million years, were sold for only several to 100 yuan (US$12.08) in Henan, but each egg could bring over US$10,000 in foreign countries if the dinosaur egg contained an embryo. Some fossils with important research value are priceless.

The Notice on Strengthening Protection of Paleontology Fossil issued by the Ministry of Land and Resources stipulated "the Ministry of Land and Resources take uniform supervision and management over paleontology fossils in China. Any institution or individual is prohibited from excavating, selling or exporting fossils of ancient extinct life in a private way." However, the Notice did not stipulate clearly what kind of legal punishment should be given to fossil smugglers. Therefore, it wasnít as effective as it could have been.

Immediate attention needs to be given to strengthen fossil bed protection, enhance the legal system construction regarding fossil protection and prevent reckless excavation and smuggling of fossil.

(科技日报 [Science and Technology Daily], January 10, 2002 by Yan Hong, translated by Li Jinhui for china.org.cn)

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