The Filched Fossil Trade: Thieves Are Getting Bolder in Australia

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA – Several months ago, elders from the Goolarabooloo clan went on national radio to place a traditional curse. Their target: a group of thieves armed with professional rock–cutting tools, who stole rare dinosaur tracks from a remote Aboriginal sacred site 1800 miles northwest of Sydney. The fossilized footprints were a significant part of the indigenous people's "Dreamtime" – when ancestral beings roamed the landscape to create humans and other species.

"Whoever has taken them has placed themselves in great danger," warned Joseph Roe, the site's caretaker.

Paleontologists were upset as well. "These tracks were the only evidence of thyreophorans (four–legged, plant–eating, armored dinosaurs with spikes or plates) in this part of the globe. There are less than a dozen examples of it worldwide," said paleontologist Tony Thulborn of the University of Queensland. Ken McNamara, curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Western Australia Museum, agrees: "Paleontology is like trying to put together a giant jigsaw puzzle when you've only got half–a–dozen of the original pieces left. Now someone's taken one of those away." The scientists are also concerned that the fossils' loss may jeopardize relations with the Aboriginal community, causing paleontologists to lose access to this nationally–registered location.

The theft highlights a growing problem in Australia, where there is no clear legislation about fossils. The most applicable statute, known as the Movable Cultural Heritage Act, was originally intended for artwork – causing legal headaches. "If you were out to make money, you ought to smuggle fossils instead of drugs," commented Thulborn. The trade is so big that some fossil–hunters even advertise their latest trophies for sale on the Internet.

Thulborn and others are concerned that their country's patrimony is being sold off to the highest bidder, disappearing overseas before researchers can even look at it. These concerns are not limited to Australia; the Manhattan branch of Sotheby's auction house sold a Tyrannosaurus rex excavated from South Dakota for over eight million dollars last week, over the objections of organizations such as the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Dinosaur Society.

However, an outright ban on all fossil–collecting is not desirable either, say some scientists. "There is a case to be made for removing tracks for safekeeping from areas of active erosion, where fossils would otherwise be lost to the elements," points out John Long, curator of vertebrate fossils at the Western Australia Museum. Thulborn agrees, adding "Much of paleontology depends upon the efforts of honest amateur collectors bringing material to museums." In an era of tight budgets, museum curators buy pieces from outsiders rather than go to the time and expense of mounting their own dig; some institutions even publish "wish lists" of items they want.

In the absence of any clear–cut rules, thieves in the land down under have grown bolder. A well–organized gang removed ediacarans fossils from several different reserves in the Flinders Ranges National Park five years ago. The fossils, worth tens of thousands of dollars on the commercial market, were scientifically priceless: "Ediacarans consist of fossil jellyfish, soft corals, worms and things that have no modern counterparts. These fossils mark the first appearance of complex life forms on the planet above the cyanobacteria level," said Ben McHenry, collection manager of earth sciences at the South Australia Museum.

The same gang used dynamite to blast trilobites out of a cliff on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, the only site of the fossil–rich Burgess Shale formation in the Southern Hemisphere. "The trilobites, made of red calcite on a gray shale background, were really spectacular and eye–catching," McHenry remarked. "It was a scene of absolute devastation when we got there," commented his colleague Neville Pledge.

But things may be changing. The missing trilobites and ediacarans were ultimately traced by Australian Customs and Interpol, who found the gang with crates of material, some of which had already been sold and delivered to a museum in Japan. Two men pled guilty to charges of exporting without a permit in April. And the spectacular thefts have attracted national attention and paved the way for new proposals to deal with the growing problem.

At the request of the Western Australia state government, McNamara has helped draft legislation to clean up the fossil market while allowing legitimate trade to continue. If passed, the new law would make all fossils state property. Individuals would get licenses to hunt for fossils at specific locations; anything unearthed would remain government property until examined and approved by authorized paleontologists for private use. Fines would be increased, and the use of explosives or heavy earth–moving equipment to dig for fossils would be banned. "Everyone would know where they stand. We can start to control the trade," said McNamara.

(This Australian legislation is the opposite tack to that recently proposed in the U.S. Congress by former Rep. Tim Johnson (D–S.D.) and Rep. Joe Skeen (R–N.M.). Known as the Fossil Preservation Act of 1996, the bill would have allowed commercial collection of fossils on public lands. The bill was ultimately defeated.)

As for stopping outright theft, the Goolarabooloo elders propose that Aboriginal rangers be hired to regularly patrol their region. However, extending such protection to cover all places of scientific significance in the remote vastness of the Australian outback is problematic, says McHenry.

While the various proposals are considered, Thulborn has some suggestions. He no longer publishes the exact location of a fossil find in scientific journals, for example. Instead, he writes generalities about the location and then entrusts details to the state museum or other authorities. He thinks better public education would also help: "People don't go into art museums and snap bits off statues or cut pieces out of paintings. It's not just because there are guards there, but because they know better."

by Dan Drollette, Special Correspondent
Newsday, p C3, 10/14/97

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