Protect fossils, experts say
China's biggest fossil reserves, in Northeast China's Liaoning Province, need urgent protection, warned a paleontologist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
"The western part of Liaoning Province that yields many rare fossils is in great danger because of the rampant private fossil excavation and smuggling," said Wang Xiaolin, researcher from the CAS Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP).
"The situation is very, very serious at present. Nearly each possible site has been dug," said Wang, who is in charge of fossil exploration in Liaoning and has inspected the region frequently during the past seven years.
A group of fossils found in western Liaoning Province which include Confuciusornis, the earliest bird found in the world to date with a beak. Liaoning bird, the oldest ancestor of modern birds, was also found in the area.
The fossils provide rare evidence for the study of primitive birds and other living things as well as reconstruction of ancient environment.
Some experts believe the region could be the place of origin of some fishes and insects.
"Thanks largely to remarkable discoveries here, most paleontologists now agree that birds share a common ancestry with dinosaurs, in particular with small carnivores called dromaeosaurs," said a source from Nature magazine's web edition.
However, those treasures are in great danger.
Fossil smuggling in the western part of Liaoning has intensified and many precious fossils have been smuggled outside.
Chaoyang City, which houses abundant fossil resources is now covered with signs of activity left behind by local farmers.
A professor from the Beijing-based Capital Normal University found many valuable insect fossils scattered around.
Experts believe handsome profit drives farmers to go searching for fossils while lax administration gives local farmers an invitation to engage in fossil trading and smuggling. Some bird and mammal fossils could fetch a price equal to that of one building.
Shenyang customs cracked down a fossil smuggling case in 2002 involving more than 2,300 fossils. Some of them were originally identified as second-class fossils.
"Many of the fossils in foreign shops and museums are from Liaoning," said Ren Dong from the Capital Normal University.
Simple Internet search results back his word.
There are many Liaoning fossils for trade on net.
Zhou Zhonghe, from the CAS, estimated that hundreds of Confuciusornis fossils may have been smuggled outside China since 1990.
About 1,000 such fossils have been found in China in the past decade. But only a small part now are in institutes and museums. Most have been smuggled to Japan, Germany and the United States, said Zhou.
The local government has moved to strengthen fossil management. Some fossil markets have been set up in Chaoyang, Jinzhou and Fuxin to counter illegal fossil trading.
"All fossil dealers have moved into the specific market. We have a special office in charge of fossil trading. Only three types of fossils can be sold," said Ding Guifu, vice-director of Chaoyang's Land and Resources Bureau.
But experts argue that such fossil markets have eased problems but not solved them.
"I absolutely disagree with such a market. So-called legal fossil trading leads to the rampant private digging. Because if you want to trade, you must find the goods first," said Wang.
Some experts said they thought the regulations were not complete.
"The regulations do not pay enough attention to fossil protection," said Zhou Zhonghe, a researcher from the CAS.
"What we found is only a small part. The rest in the earth may be more important. It demands immediate salvation," said Zhou.