Potential Trouble over new Chinese Law making all Fossils State Property

The Liaoning Province of northeastern China has become world-renowned for the amazing prehistoric animal fossils that have been recovered from its sediments.  Indeed, much of the current work on the relationship between birds and Theropod dinosaurs would not be taking place had not little feathered dinos such as Sinosauropteryx and Sinornithosaurus been discovered.  Despite the considerable palaeontological resources of scientific bodies such as the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology based in Beijing, it is not possible to explore this vast hinterland without the help and co-operation of the local peasant farmers.

Many local farmers have supplemented their meagre earnings from agriculture by digging pits into the fine sediments, finding fossils and selling them onto dealers and brokers, or even direct to the research institutes Thousands of individual specimens have been found by the peasants, carefully picking through layer upon layer of rocks and doing much of the “donkey” work for the palaeontologists.

This kind of “free market” approach has benefited science, a young boy found the first Chinese fossil bird Sinornis and a farmer discovered Sinosauropteryx.  Only a few of the discoveries made to date have actually been made by palaeontologists and researchers, it is the farmers and peasants that have made the discoveries.  Naturally, the locals are curious to hear more about the strange,ancient creatures lurking in the ground but the real incentive is the possibility of finding an excellent specimen and cashing in on it.

However, a new law which came into force in 2006 is now beginning to make its presence felt.  The new law makes all dinosaur fossils state property, its aim is to cut down on the amount of small time excavation work and to prevent fossils being sold to dealers who then smuggle these items out for sale on the black market.    In November, matters came to a head when the issue of who actually owes fossil finds led to a court case in the central Henan province, where seven peasants were jailed for trying to prevent local officials from confiscating fossils they had collected.

If farmers are prevented from selling fossils openly, they will either give up digging, which could dramatically cut the supply of specimens to the museums or they could go literally “underground” and sell everything illegally on the black market.  Which ever route is taken it spells bad news for palaeontologists.  They will lose a keen and willing workforce with local knowledge and a lot of fossils will simply leave the country via various illegal means and be lost to science forever as these finds will be destined for the private collections of the wealthy individuals of Europe, Japan and the USA.

Perhaps a balance could be struck with the setting up of  local, unbiased vetting stations.  Finds could be brought in by the farmers for examination by scientific staff, who the state could provide funds to, allowing them to purchase any finds.  Those fossils not deemed worthy of further study could be returned to the discoverer who would then be free to sell his fossil on the open market.  No matter what system is proposed there is always the possibility of misrepresentation and corruption.  However, if the palaeontologists and the state museums are given the funds to allow them to have first choice of the fossil finds, then the peasants will be disinclined to turn to the black market and they will be properly rewarded for their digging.

We suspect there are many more amazing discoveries awaiting us in the vast fossil rich sediments of China, how many actually see the light of day, how many end up in private collections before they have a chance to be studied has yet to be decided.

The dinosaurs from Liaoning and other parts of China have helped to revolutionise the way scientists think, thanks to these amazing discoveries our knowledge of dinosaurs and their kin has been changed forever.  At Everything Dinosaur we are being asked more questions about feathered dinosaurs than 2 years ago, they really seemed to have captured people’s imaginations.  We are working on a number of feathered dinosaur projects, for example new models are being introduced by most of the major model manufacturers that reflect these new ideas and dinosaur interpretations.

One of our popular sales products this Christmas has been the Feathered Dinosaur Tube, a set of models showing feathered and non-avian dinosaurs.  These models have been designed by the palaeontologists at the American Museum of Natural History (New York) and the tubes contain a variety of dinosaur models including the likes of Microraptor, a feathered Velociraptor, Caudipteryx, the small Theropod Dilong as well as some non-feathered dinosaurs such as Chasmosaurus and Protoceratops to keep them company.

Everything Dinosaur Dinosaur tube: Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models

An Illustration of the Typical Contents of a Feathered Dinosaur Tube

A set of feathered dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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