Saturday, November 12, 2005

Fossil Smuggling Trial Starts In China

China has opened the trial of the most notorious ancient animal fossil smuggling case, involving 2,925 pieces in eastern Zhejiang Province and revealing a huge loophole in protecting the ancient treasures.

Keichousaurus image from HERE.

From China View ( comes this story:

According to Thursday's People's Daily, the trial opened in a local court on Nov. 1. Suspects Zhu Chunlin, a Canadian-Chinese, and his complices are accused of having been buying and smuggling paleobiofossils to the United States or reselling them on domestic market since 2003.

The two were caught by customs officials last November, when officials spotted 1,141 fossils they planned to smuggle abroad and later 1,784 pieces they sold or hid in northeast Jinzhou city and Shanghai, including Jurassic Hyphalosaurus fossils over 150 million years old, and Triassic Keichousaurus hui fossils and Ichthyosaurus fossils that date back over 200 million years, all banned from being exported out of China.

Hyphalosaurus image from HERE.

But the case is not unprecedented. During 2002 and 2004, three smuggling cases were found each involving more than 2,000 paleobiofossils. Reckless smugglers are driven by huge gains of selling the fossils overseas, said Liu Lujun, a paleontologist who inspected the fossils seized in the ongoing case.

Ancient animal fossils are sold at prices generally ten times that in the Chinese market in foreign markets. A Confuciusornis bird fossil, priced at only 20,000 to 30,000 yuan, would cost 100,000 dollars or more in a foreign country. As an international black market takes shape, the number of fossils slipping out of China to overseas regions is striking. More than 100 Confuciusornis bird fossils, the oldest fossils found on earth, have been smuggled from China to Tuscon, Arizona, US, alone.

Confusciusornis image from HERE.

There are only 20 Confusciusornis bird fossils left in Chinese museums. The gloomy situation is blamed on China's lack of a specified law to protect the fossils and punish smugglers and poor multi-ministry coordination, experts said. China has not a single law to deal with the protection and smuggling of ancient animal fossils, though as early as 2002, the first local regulations were issued in a small county in southwest Guizhou Province to protect fossils and guard against smuggling there.

Moreover, there is no clear legal interpretation spelling outwhether ancient animal fossils are antiques, which lead to the protection of the two to fall into the jurisdictions of two different government departments. While antiquities are looked after by the State Bureau of Cultural Relics, the protection of paleobiofossils is taken care of by the Ministry of Land and Resources, whose regulations focus only on fossil excavation, not on smuggling or scalping.

In China's legal system, profiting from fossils is not specified in terms of legal obligation. There is not even a unified national standard for fossil appraisal, which increases the difficulty in China's fossil protection.