Nation's fossil sites must be protected

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am

Science and business make uneasy bedfellows in Lufeng, one of the most important fossil sites not only in China, but the world. Over several decades, the famous county in Yunnan province has yielded full sets of fossils of previously unknown species of dinosaur; the teeth and skull of an early primate related to the orang-utan, and possibly to humans; and rare feathered dinosaur relics that help prove their evolutionary link to birds. One would have thought such an important site would be carefully protected by the authorities for scientific research. Sadly, that is not the case.

Fossil remains are more often being treated by villagers and other fossil hunters like gold mines than scientific finds. Unsupervised tours are common, with tourists walking off with pieces of fossil they have found on the ground. A dinosaur theme park, built by a developer with an investment of 600 million yuan (HK$684.67 million), dwarfs the 100 million yuan dinosaur museum; it is one of the province's most popular tourist attractions. Local authorities are happy with the result. In fact, they actively encourage the exploitation of the so-called World Dinosaur Valley at the county's Ana site as a means to improve the economically backward area, rather than as a site of world-scientific significance. This free-for-all mindset must change.

Exploitation such as this raises serious questions about how scientific research is being done on the mainland. As with many contemporary market practices on the mainland today, the integrity of research is being compromised by the profit motive. Instead of scientific digs supervised by professional palaeontologists and other experts, amateurs and treasure hunters sometimes destroy bones and disrupt fossil sites.

The lack of supervision may be setting back scientific progress and encouraging corruption. Dinosaur bones are so prevalent in Lufeng county and other major sites such as those in Inner Mongolia and Liaoning province that most exhibitions use the real thing, rather than replicas, as most state-sanctioned exhibits tend to do on the mainland nowadays. Fossil hunters and villagers are able to fetch high prices for rare samples. Unfortunately, in order to hide the location of their digs so as to fight off competition, they often deliberately give the wrong locations and false stratums. That undermines the ability of experts to determine the fossils' scientific status and construct accurate theories based on them.

Although professional palaeontologists worldwide look down on the practice of buying fossils, it is an open secret that at least some mainland scientific institutions and scientists are happy to pay for them. This practice encourages the exploitation and disruption of valuable fossil sites. It also helps sustain a black market. This practice needs to be discouraged, and those guilty of it penalised.

There is, though, a silver lining to the rampant commercialism. Some experts say they can now cut through the bureaucratic red tape by just calling up the museum or even the theme park in Lufeng to have a site allotted for research. That is, however, no substitute for having a proper scientific authority to supervise and preserve the most important sites on the mainland for research. Important fossil sites such as Lufeng are a gift from nature that need to be carefully preserved and protected. If the mainland wants to be a scientific powerhouse, it must do a better job of managing such sites for the purpose of science, and the nation's natural heritage.