PAUL BARRETT, NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, LONDON - Dinosaur palaeontologists usually get most excited about new discoveries in the field or laboratory, but over the past few months another issue has been grabbing headlines and dominating discussions around museum coffee tables: fossil smuggling.
This issue was recently brought to prominence by an ongoing high-profile case in the United States, where a commercial fossil dealer has been taken to court over the import of several dinosaur skeletons into the USA, most famously that of a Tyrannosaurus-like animal called Tarbosaurus.
The problem? Tarbosaurus is known to come only from Mongolia, and that country has had, for many decades, strict laws in place that prohibit the removal of fossil material.
Consequently, the Mongolian government regards the skeletons as stolen property and pressed for their return following their advertised sale in an auction catalogue.
The United States, and many other countries (including the UK), has no specific laws in place regarding the import of fossil material, so the skeletons fell into a legal grey area: legal to bring into the USA, but only after the illegal removal of the material from Mongolia.
In this case, the dealer is not being charged with breaking US law on importing fossils (none exists), but with various customs violations relating to the value and stated identity of the objects being imported.
I was recently involved in a much lower-profile example relating to the possible sale of a Tarbosaurus leg that was due to take place at Christie’s in London. After noticing the specimen on display in their sales room on my way to work one morning, I contacted Christie’s and informed them that the specimen was very likely to have been illegally exported from Mongolia.
Much to their credit, and unlike the auction house involved in the US case, Christie’s immediately removed the specimen from the sale, pending further enquiries into where it originally came from.
Palaeontologists often work closely with professional fossil dealers, the vast majority of whom operate well within the bounds of the law and provide a useful service to the scientific community.
Palaeontologists cannot take regular field trips to all regions of the globe to collect all of the fossils that the action of wind and water regularly bring to the surface.
Some very talented commercial collectors help to compensate for this by becoming expert fossil hunters themselves, excavating the specimens (and thus preventing them from being destroyed by erosion) and preparing them for study or exhibition.
Where this work is carried out with the full co-operation of the landowners and relevant local and national authorities (and within the strictures of the law), valuable specimens can find their way into public institutions.
Everyone is happy in this case: the collector makes a deal, the scientific community gets a research specimen, the landowner is compensated, and legislators have no concerns.
However, the high prices that museum-quality skeletons can attract (such as the $6.25 million skeleton of Tyrannosaurus sold, legally, a few years ago to Chicago’s prestigious Field Museum) do lead a small minority of dealers to look for better or more exotic specimens.
Unfortunately, many of these tend to come from areas with rich fossil beds, but poor policing due to the vast distances involved. China and Mongolia in particular have become areas where unscrupulous dealers have made a thriving trade in illegally exporting material for sale in other markets.
Fossil smuggling generates a number of problems. There is a massive loss to science. Although a skeleton might have been saved from erosion, these types of collectors generally do not excavate them very well (they are usually in a hurry to avoid being caught), losing valuable and essential anatomical and contextual information from the surrounding geology in the process.
Even where such information might exist, or the specimens are well-excavated, such dealers are loathe to give exact details for fear of revealing the specimen’s illegal source. Many illegal collectors plunder existing sites that have been painstakingly excavated by professional scientists: several of my colleagues in Mongolia have reported on important sites that have effectively been destroyed by fossil poachers ripping bones from the ground.
In addition, this trade creates tension between those countries suffering from smuggling and those that allow the sale of this type of material on the open market. Many countries regard fossils as part of their national heritage and take strong offence to having material leaving their borders illegally for foreign museums or private collectors.
The heightened level of suspicion among the local authorities means it can be difficult for scientists or legitimate commercial collectors to secure permissions to excavate specimens in these countries.
For example, the laws governing fossil collecting in China have recently been tightened, which in some cases is making it difficult even for Chinese scientists to collect fossils for their own museums and universities.
The smugglers, who are often based in jurisdictions far from the countries of origin of the fossils they obtain, are also asking local people to take significant risks with their safety (some fossil localities are in remote areas with dangerous terrain) and livelihoods for relatively small financial gain. The penalties for smuggling fossils from some countries can be severe, leading to large fines and long prison sentences.
In order to deal with these issues, we need to be vigilant, helping to police potential breaches of the law when illegally acquired material is offered for sale. This will ultimately help to protect the fossil resources we have available to us, the level of scientific research and also help support those making a legitimate living from collecting fossils.
The best way forward is for scientists and commercial collectors to work together, with the full cooperation of local people and a thorough understanding of the relevant legal frameworks. This will maximise the amount of scientific information gained and enhance the cultural heritage of those countries with these rich fossil deposits. Commerce and science can coexist, but only if illegal smuggling is stopped.
Dr Paul Barrett is a Merit Researcher at the Natural History Museum. He works mainly on the evolution and biology of plant-eating dinosaurs and has worked extensively on dinosaur fossils from the UK, China, southern Africa and Australia.