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Fossil trade puts China's natural history at risk

  • Source: Global Times
  • [21:22 November 08 2009]
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China's opening up may have led to an economic miracle, but it has been a mixed blessing for one of the world's major finds of prehistoric fossils, as dealers and foreign buyers have exploited the lack of effective heritage laws to spirit them overseas. Beijing rightly says they belong in China and has drafted new laws to protect them, but it needs to calm scientists' concerns that they will be frustrated by official corruption.

In the 1980s, poor but resourceful farmers in Liaoning Province dug into the hillsides and unearthed a treasure trove of fossils, for which there was a lucrative market in the West. Locals and vendors prospered, while the Chinese and international scientific communities fought in vain to save specimens for research and posterity.

Five years ago, when the government legislated to make all fossils the property of the State, the trade in them went underground, where it has continued to flourish. A draft law published earlier this year to tighten protection of fossils and curb smuggling puts vertebrate fossils under the ministry's direct control.

Today, however, many scientists are concerned that this will foster corruption and fuel the illicit trade. Chinese paleontologists have lobbied Beijing to take central control of fossil specimens and to set up a scientific panel to regulate the collection at a national level.

China's natural history is at stake. Among the remains of more than 20 biological categories found by those farmers since the 1980s, was the earliest bird in the world with a beak. Later discoveries forced scientists to revise their ideas of dinosaurs and shed new light on the origin of birds.

China can rightly blame theft by foreigners for the loss of art treasures. UNESCO has estimated that more than 1.6 million objects are to be found in foreign countries. There have been calls for Beijing to legislate to prohibit the sale of national relics in foreign countries.

It would be a national tragedy and disgrace, however, if blame for the loss of any more of its fossil heritage had to be laid partly at the door of corrupt Chinese officials. Beijing should heed their voices and give it effective protection worthy of a national treasure.

Source: South China Morning Post, November 8

For the Chinese version, see P6 in today's Global Times Chinese Edition 

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