Saturday, 19 May 2012

Illegal fossils from Mongolia

So I know a number of people are doing their own posts about the illegal fossil trade that comes out of Mongolia, but I thought I'd give my two cents. In case you haven't heard, there is a Tarbosaurus bataar (referred to as Tyrannosaurus bataar) skeleton going on auction in the U.S. tomorrow. Now for those of you who aren't palaeontologists, you may ask "who cares?" Well in short - all palaeontologists care, and really, everyone else should too.
Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton on auction by Heritage Auctions

Mongolia has very strict laws on fossil exports. Basically, you can't legally export any fossils that come from Mongolia. Now this has been made very clear by a number of palaeontologists who have done work in Mongolia. The auction house selling the skeleton claims that there is no way to know where the skeleton comes from, but they do say that it's from the Gobi Desert. Ok technically, that could mean it's from China, but lets face it, that's not likely. And even if it did, it would be against Chinese law too! That skeleton came from Mongolia, and if it did, there's no way it was exported to the U.S. legally.

How does this happen? Fossil poaching. There are some locals that know how much money they can get for these fossils. After a fossil is uncovered by a scientist but can't be removed for whatever reason, the poachers remove it before the palaeontologist can return to collect it (usually from one year to the next). This has been well documented and has happened to several palaeontologists, including Dr. Michael Ryan (read about it here). So again, you ask, why do we care? Well several reasons really. The main reason is that usually what happens is that these fossils that are obtained illegally get lost to science. They often go to private collectors and it sits in their basement gathering dust. Most palaeontologists aren't interested in fossils that are obtained illegally, so even if it comes to their attention, it doesn't get studied. But what about this specimen? It's going on auction so surely an institution could buy it? Sure it's possible, but again, if it's illegally collected, most scientific institutions will shy away from it. If it is proven to be illegally collected, then they've just wasted a lot of money on something they will have to return to Mongolia. That is, if they even have the money to collect it. Museums these days don't have a lot of extra money hanging around to buy things like this. If it sells, this skeleton could go for around $1 000 000, which is a lot of cash! The other reason it's bad is that it encourages people to do it more. If no one buys these fossils, the poaching will decrease since they can't make any  money off of it. This way, it just encourages the ones responsible. Quite often these poachers destroy specimens to get what they want. They may  hack off bones to get as much as they can from a difficult to remove specimen, or they blast them to pieces trying to remove them. So many fossils get destroyed by this.

Now the president of Heritage Auctions, where the skeleton is set to go on auction tomorrow, has responded with a fairly stupid response. On a petition site to stop the auction, he has said this:

From Greg Rohan, President 
Heritage Auctions
The opening statement in this petition is false and reckless. There is no evidence that we have seen regarding where the fossils were collected, or that they were collected illegally.We appreciate your concerns relating to the Tarbosaurus but it is our conclusion that no impropriety exists with regards to its sale at auction. You should all be aware that this auction has been publicicized broadly for 4 weeks and the Mongolian Governments request issued today, less than 48 hours before the auction is unreasonable and inappropriate.We have no reason to believe that any laws enforced by the United States have been violated and we are unaware that Mongolian law would have prevented export from Mongolia. Mongolia won its independence in 1921 and this specimen is obviously quite a bit older than that. Further, we are not aware of any treaty between the United States and Mongolia which would prevent the import into the United States and are equally unaware of any prohibition of export, particularly since Mongolia has not produced any factual or legal document supporting a possible claim.We have asked Mongolia if they had failed to tell us of a known prohibition preventing auction, and so far they have not.  
Our consignor is an individial with a good reputation and he has warrantied in writing to us that he holds clear title to the specimen.
All I can say is: what?! Ok, maybe there isn't direct evidence as to where it was collected or that it they were collected illegally, but if you're unaware of  "that Mongolian law would have prevented export from Mongolia", then you obviously haven't done your homework. AND you have a whole load of palaeontologists that have been working under these laws for years telling you that you are wrong. You obviously aren't trying to fix things. Furthermore, what does the age of the country have to do with anything?? Since when does the age of the country affect whether you can remove fossils? Does that mean that anyone has access to things like fossil fuels all over the world because the country is younger than the fuel is, so the laws don't affect it? I don't think so. Fine, you didn't realise it was illegal in the first place, but now you have clearly been told there is a problem, so do the right thing and take it off the market. 
Dr Mark Norell, curator at the AMNH has issued a letter regarding the fossil, and can be read here, along with another summary of the auction. Many other well known palaeontologists are spreading the word and urging for this auction to stop, including Dr Mike Taylor, Dr David Weishampel, Dr Kevin Padian, and many many more. 
Even if you are not a palaeontologist, I urge you to sign the petition. It may not help, but it certainly can't hurt. The more people that do it, the better. If you support science, and like looking at fossils, please sign it. The petition can be found at
And now my ranting for the day is done. But seriously, sign it. 

Apparently a temporary restraining order has been issued by a judge in Texas to prevent the sale of the Tarbosaurus skeleton. A lawyer was hired on behalf of the Mongolian president and they were able to at least temporarily halt the auction. Unfortunately, it is only for the one skeleton, not the other several fossils that are from Mongolia at all. Read Brian Switek's blog here to see the press release. What happens from this will be extremely important in the future of sales of illegally smuggled Mongolian fossils.