Saturday, May 24, 2014

Fossil Commercialism and the Threat to Paleontology, Part 3: The Outreach

I recently did some consulting work on an article with Mika McKinnon entitled "Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones". This is an article that was inspired by a discussion thread of "What Mysterious Creature Left These 190-Million-Year-Old Footprints?" on the issues surrounding the commercial fossil trade and private ownership of fossils among myself, artiofab, and someone who regretted not buying a trilobite trackway.

Please take a moment to read the "Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones" article. It's full of juicy links to other media that highlight the issues with which academic paleontologists are concerned in regards to fossil heritage conservation.

The article does what very few discussion threads (or the media) address when tackling this quagmire of an issue: it suggests possible solutions that are neither "All selling and private ownership is evil!" nor "Have a Fossil Sellapalloza or you hate children's dreams!" It's a middle of the road approach that I think would benefit all parties in the long run (except those parties conducting illegal activities or exploiting impoverished areas by encouraging illegal activities.) I've summarized them below:

1. Develop a system to provide proof of legal collection.
- Did that specimen come from China? Likely illegally collected and exported. Is that tyrannosaur Mongolian in origin? That specimen was poached. Perhaps it is just me, but I can't imagine wanting to own anything that was illegally collected.
2. Have a review body of scientists clear items for sale.
- I like this suggestion, because it has the added benefit of the review body also being able to put sellers in touch with institutions that could archive the specimen, and working with them to develop a fair price or donation.
3. Regulated pricing of heritage items.
- Resources are involved when collecting fossils and preparing them, but having some sort of price cap (cost of collecting and preparing the specimen, plus a percentage?) would not only give museums a chance to realistically purchase a specimen for the public trust, but may help to discourage the illegal trade.
4 & 6. Register fossils in a private archives.
- As I've stated in a previous post, I would love to develop a Citizen Archives Program. The Citizen Archivist would be an official branch of our museum. They would be trained in the proper archiving techniques, and all specimens would officially be part of the museum's archives. Archives would be reviewed regularly to ensure that proper practices (e.g. no selling off or trading archived fossils, etc.), and there would be an agreement as to where the fossils went after the cessation of activity of the Archivist.
5. Remove fossils from the luxury market.
- How the hell did it become the "thing" to have a fossil in your home as a piece of art? I understand that fossils are fantastically fascinating and awe-inspiring, but that doesn't mean that they should be treated like art purchased from a gallery. People once wore dead birds on hats as a fashionable accessory: the "Plume Boom" in the early 1900s saw hundreds of millions of birds killed worldwide for the millinery trade. I would love the idea of owning "rare" fossils (the poor theropods seem to bear the brunt of fashion, extant or extinct) to become as fashionable as me wearing this to my next conference:'am. I hate to intrude, but you have an ex-bird on your head. Image source:
I've also been contributing to the comments section of the article, clarifying issues and, in one case, trying to steer a comment back on track. I'm hoping that people will test-discuss some possible solutions, and I will discuss some of these solutions in future posts. If you have any ideas, please contribute to the discussion!

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