Four suspects arrested in huge dinosaur fossil-smuggling operation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 August, 2003, 12:00am

Shenzhen customs officers have smashed what they claim was the largest dinosaur fossil-smuggling operation uncovered in China since 1949.

They arrested four suspects last week, including a Taiwanese dealer.

In January, customs officers in Shekou found 2,165 pieces of ancient vertebrate and invertebrate dinosaurs in a 15-metre-long container purportedly carrying handicrafts and due to be transported to Taiwan, Shenzhen customs officials said.

Retired paleontologist Zhao Xijin, a leading dinosaur expert who travelled to Shenzhen to examine the fossils, said most were of reptiles, fish, dinosaurs and dinosaur eggs, including many of the 240-million-year-old marine reptiles known as Guizhou dragons.

Species found in the container included land and water animals spanning the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods dating as far back as 240 million years. Professor Zhou said the fossils had come from Henan, Guizhou, Hunan and Sichuan provinces.

He said many were extremely rare and had high scientific research value.

Many fossils of dinosaurs living in the late Cretaceous period are useful for research into understanding why they became extinct, as well as into the evolution of the Earth.

'It was the largest quantity of fossils I've ever seen,' the professor said. 'Some are of species that I've never seen.'

Professor Zhao, who described the collection as priceless, speculated that it was intended for scientific research and had probably been planned by an expert because the range of species was comprehensive and the pieces were professionally assembled.

'Many fossils are not particularly good looking and not the sort of thing that people use as decorations at home,' he said.

China is one of the world's most fertile sources of fossilised dinosaur remains and boasts 119 of the nearly 900 dinosaur species excavated so far worldwide.

It bans the sale and export of dinosaur fossils.

However, legal loopholes and neglect have given smugglers the chance to make huge profits internationally in the illicit fossil trade.

In July last year, 2,364 pieces of fossils, including 10 well-preserved dinosaur skeletons, were intercepted by police before they were due to be transported to South Korea.

Rampant digging up and smuggling of fossils abroad prompted the Ministry of Land and Resources to draw up regulations banning the private excavation of fossils last October.

Illegal digging carries a maximum fine of 30,000 yuan (HK$28,200).

The ministry is also working on a list of fossils in need of protection and is working with customs authorities on procedures to stop valuable ancient fossils leaving the country.