Fossil theft: One of our dinosaurs is missing

The illegal trade is increasingly lucrative, with dire results for science

Armed with rock chisels, it took the thief only a few minutes to wipe out 135 million years of history. The fossilised iguanodon footprint was hacked out of the limestone slab where it had lain in a Dorset quarry and spirited away by an illicit collector.

Some 5,000 miles away in southern India, scientists last month issued a plea for villagers and even student palaeontologists to halt the mass looting of hundreds of dinosaur eggs whose petrified embryos could shed new light on the extinction of a species.

Fascination with the ferocious beasts has never been greater, with scientists announcing almost weekly the discovery of new prehistoric species from giant crocodiles to feathered lizards that bear testimony to an evolutionary link with birds. But with a pristine Tyrannosaurus rex specimen fetching up to $8.3m (£5m), there is growing concern that a booming trade in stolen or illicit fossils is wrecking unique sites and seeing previously unknown species disappear into private collections, where they are lost to science.

One of the world's leading palaeontologists told The Independent that fossil rustling had become a "huge international problem" stretching from developed markets like Britain to dinosaur hotspots such as Mongolia and China. The speed and anonymity of the internet has led to a thriving black market linking unscrupulous dealers to private collectors interested in "trophy" fossils for display rather than study. Once a fossil is dug out of the ground without proper recording of information such as its location and depth, at least half its scientific value is lost.

Even a correctly-recorded specimen which ends up in private hands is lost to science because scientific journals do not publish research on specimens which cannot be readily accessed or peer reviewed.

Professor Philip Currie of the University of Alberta, an eminent Canadian scientist who is chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology, said: "This is a huge international problem that affects most of us who do research in the field. I do a lot of work in China and Mongolia, where highly significant fossils, including new species of animals, feathered dinosaurs and birds, are regularly smuggled out illegally and sold at big international fossil shows and over the web. I have seen many quarries [in Mongolia] where, in the quest for illicit profit, specimens have been destroyed by incompetent collectors looking for teeth and claws. The destruction of specimens that survived underground for 75 million years only to be ripped up for a few dollars is heart-rending."

After a spate of thefts in Scotland and northern England seven years ago, when fossil hunters armed with diggers, electric saws and dynamite stole stones worth ten of thousands of pounds, police and wildlife conservation bodies launched a campaign to crack down on illegal collectors.

A voluntary code of conduct for Britain's army of enthusiasts has also been successful in ensuring that specimens are submitted for assessment to museums and conservation groups. But there is evidence that the plundering of Britain's dinosaur-bearing rocks is continuing. Earlier this year, a thief carved the 18in iguanodon footprint out of the Coombefield Quarry on Dorset's Jurassic Coast at Portland.

The discovery of the theft prompted the owner of the site, Portland Gas, to order the removal and secure storage of another 25 slabs containing footprints from various two-legged and four-legged dinosaurs.

More than 30 imprints from a three-toed dinosaur stolen from Bendrick Rock, near Barry in Wales, have been found for sale on eBay and fossil shops on the south coast of England.

Jonathan Larwood, senior palaeontologist with Natural England, said: "The vast majority of collectors out there are law-abiding and will let the appropriate people know if they find something of interest. A lot of fossils are found on our eroding coasts and this type of collecting is really important. It is something we want to encourage. But there have always been unscrupulous collectors who will steal fossils and seek to sell them on, and the internet has provided them with a much more easily accessible market."

In order to shut down illicit dealers, landowners are increasingly resorting to injunctions to restrict the activities of repeat offenders. The Independent understands that the National Trust is currently seeking an injunction against one fossil collector who has repeatedly ignored demands to stop digging at one of Britain's richest fossil sites. The Trust declined to comment on the case, saying that proceedings were still ongoing. But while the trade in illegally recovered fossils from Britain may be limited to a few dozen specimens every year, the problem is on a far greater scale elsewhere. In the village of Senthurai in Tamil Nadu, southern India, scientists had to call in police last month when storms uncovered hundreds of dinosaur eggs that had been concealed by sand 8ft below the ground. As news spread of the discovery, the site was plundered by villagers and students accused of selling on the eggs. Professor K Kumaraswamy, head of geosciences at Bharathidasan University, said: "We are unable to stop the plundering. Each egg or egg cluster may provide a unique insight into the life and extinction of the dinosaur species."

The allure of the open market means that potentially unique or important specimens like the eggs will soon be circulating in a fossil-selling industry worth at least £100m a year. A spate of museum openings in Japan and a booming market in North America in recent years has led to eye-watering prices for so-called "voucher" specimens such as a T. rex skeleton. A private buyer last week paid between $5m and $8m for a T. Rex fossil, which will now be displayed in an unnamed American museum.

The risks of mixing academia with the fossil business were highlighted 10 years ago when an archaeoraptor bought on the open market for an American museum and hailed by National Geographic magazine as proof of the missing link between birds and dinosaurs turned out to be a "composite" – two fossils cleverly fused together to make a convincing fake.

Decades of expertise in fossil cleaning mean that Britain is also profiting from the commercial trade. Consignments of Chinese dinosaur eggs discovered in the 1990s were prepared in the UK, revealing beautifully preserved dinosaur embryos. But, because they have been sold to private collections and question marks remain about whether they were legally exported from China, scientists have not been able to study the specimens.

Paul Barrett, a dinosaur researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, said: "Fossils are a finite resource. In cases where they are recovered illicitly or illegally, and sold on, there is a loss of data to science. I would not like to estimate just how big that loss is."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
A referee issues a red card
football
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Developer

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Back End Web Developer

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenance Engineer

£36500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenan...

The Jenrick Group: Multi Skilled Maintenance Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Multi Skill...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'