Cities dig in to protect precious fossil sites
BY AKIHIRO NISHIYAMA, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
The municipalities, which have been the sites of recent dinosaur fossil discoveries, want to prevent the smuggling of the prehistoric finds, which has become a major headache in other countries.
They have introduced ordinances to protect dig sites, designated areas as sanctuaries, and have rules in place to punish offenders.
The municipal government of Ono, Fukui Prefecture, adopted a set of restrictions in July aimed at protecting fossils in the city.
In 1996, a fossilized tooth of a dinosaur related to the Tyrannosaurus rex was discovered in 1996, the first finding in Japan involving the giant meat-eating theropod.
The city designated 24 locations around the excavation site as protected areas, and made it mandatory to register any research and excavation activities with the city.
It also appointed 10 residents to patrol the area.
The city sits atop the Tetori strata, which includes sedimentary layers dating back to the early Cretaceous period (120 million to 140 million years ago), and stretches over a wide area of the Hokuriku region.
The sedimentary layer is known as a “treasure box” of dinosaur fossils.
“The thing we fear the most is that there may still be precious fossils to be found, and they could be stolen,” said an Ono municipal government official.
In the city of Tanba, Hyogo Prefecture, fossils of what has become known as the Tanbaryu (Tanba dragon), one of the largest herbivore dinosaurs found in Japan, were unearthed in 2006. The city has moved to protect the ongoing excavation.
In May 2007, an ordinance took effect that designates the area around the excavation site as a sanctuary and bans fossil collecting outside private property. Violators face a fine of up to 50,000 yen.
The city is continuing its search in hopes of finding the complete frame of Tanbaryu.
“This is the first dinosaur fossil that the city has ever dealt with,” said a city official, stressing the need for the fine. “Anything could happen since the excavation site is close to an inhabited part of the city.”
In the neighboring city of Sasayama, the oldest known fossil of a mammal in Japan, believed to have roamed the area around the same time as the Tanba dragon, was excavated in May.
Soon after the find, the city put into force an ordinance to protect fossils of vertebrates unearthed within its borders.
The ordinance stipulates the need for prior registration of excavation and research activities in areas designated as sanctuaries. Monitors appointed by the city guard the site.
While no incidences of looting have been reported in any of the municipalities, the cities hope to avoid the situations that have become common in China, Mongolia and other countries.
Those countries are said to be struggling to find a way to stem the rampant theft and trafficking of the countries’ archaeological treasures.
In the 1990s, a large number of fossils, including dinosaur eggs and those of Eoconfuciusornis zhengi, known as “the dawn of Confucius bird,” were illicitly exported from China.
Beijing introduced punitive measures in its criminal code against fossil theft, with prison terms ranging from three to 10 years for violators.
In addition, the Chinese government enacted a law on the management of fossils under which looters can face a maximum fine of 30,000 yuan (about 400,000 yen).
Mongolia forbids the unauthorized exports of fossils, and has fines and prison terms in place for violators.
Thailand introduced a law in February to punish fossil looters with a maximum prison sentence of seven years and a maximum fine of 700,000 baht (about 2 million yen).
Makoto Manabe, senior curator at the geology and paleontology department of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, said that with a large number of fossil collectors in Japan, there is a risk of a black market emerging if high-priced trading gets out of control.
“We cannot rule out the possibility that looting could occur. There is also the possibility that fossils could be trafficked to overseas black markets,” Manabe said. “Rules need to be set.”(IHT/Asahi: January 7,2009)