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In the footprint of smuggled fossils

Paleontologists speak with Federal Prosecutors and the Federal Police to bring a stop to the trafficking of fossil assets in Brazil

Fish fossil of the genus Cladocyclus on exhibition at the Plácido Cidade Nuvens Museum of Paleontology in Santana do Cariri in Ceará

Aline M. Ghilardi (UFRN)

Brazil found a new dinosaur species in December. The animal was the size of a chicken, walked on two legs, and had long, fine hairs covering its body—a crude form of feathers—in addition to two pairs of an elongated, rigid structure protecting it from its shoulders in a V formation. It is estimated that the Ubirajara jubatus, as it was first called, lived about 120 million years ago where today is the Brazilian Northeast, feeding on insects and small vertebrates. The description of this rare dinosaur specimen of the Early Cretaceous, a geological period from 146 million years to 100 million years ago, is contained in a study published in the magazine Cretaceous Research by an international team of researchers. The discovery arose out of analyses of fossils from the Araripe basin, on the border of the states of Ceará, Piauí, and Pernambuco, one of the regions with a higher number of reported cases of trafficking of these materials in the country. The holotype—a single type specimen upon which the description of a new species is based—is in the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe in Germany, which attracted the attention of Brazilian researchers. They suspect that the fossil was illegally removed from Brazil.

The suspicion generated significant attention on social media. Dozens of scientists worked together to demand the return of the material. Amidst the criticism, and on the request of the Brazilian Society of Paleontology (SBP), Cretaceous Research took the article offline until the issues that had been raised were addressed. The case reached Federal Prosecutors (MPF) of Juazeiro do Norte in Ceará, who established a procedure to investigate the removal of the fossil and requested that German authorities seize and repatriate the material. One of the authors of the study, British paleontologist David Martill, of the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, fended off accusations of international trafficking. “The holotype is in the Karlsruhe museum where I saw it for the first time. I did not take it and certainly did not export it,” he said to Pesquisa FAPESP. “No matter what happened, I am not responsible for verifying the origin of the fossils I work with. If they are in a museum, I presume they are there legitimately.”

To certify the legality of the holotype for Cretaceous Research, German paleontologist Eberhard Frey, curator of the Karlsruhe museum and author of the article along with Martill, presented a document submitted and signed in 1995 by José Betimar Melo Filgueira, then head of the regional office of the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM) in Crato, Ceará, authorizing the “transport of two boxes containing limestone samples with fossils, without a market value and with the primary objective to undertake paleontological studies.” However, paleontologist Aline Ghilardi, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), contests the document. “It does not talk at all about permanently exporting the materials abroad and it also does not specify how many and which fossils were in those boxes. The way it was written, the authors can continue to describe new species for the next 20 years, alleging that all of the holotypes came from them,” she says. She also calls attention to the fact that the employee who sent the authorization was charged in 2015 for administrative misconduct involving illegal submission of authenticity certificates for precious stones. “This ‘authorization’ is disturbing and testifies against the actual authors of the article who understand Brazilian laws as they have worked here many times,” she shares.

The imbroglio involving U. jubatus has identified fossil trafficking as an issue in Brazil. At the same time, it has shown how Brazilian researchers are speaking with the MPF in an effort to repatriate these materials. In the last seven years, the MPF of Juazeiro do Norte introduced at least 10 procedures to investigate the illegal removal of these items from Brazil. “The majority were reported by scientists,” comments Rafael Rayol, federal prosecutor leading the investigations in Brazil. The oldest report references the repatriation of 46 fossils from Araripe, among them the skeleton of a Pterosaur.

Aline M. Ghilardi (UFRN) The extraction of laminated limestone by mining company workers in Nova Olinda is the key source of new fossil discoveriesAline M. Ghilardi (UFRN)

In 2014, biologist Taissa Rodrigues, from the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES), learned from an auction site about the sale of a Pterosaur of the species Anhanguera santanae. Geofossiles, a store in Charleville-Mézières, France, that specializes in the sale of fossils, asked for close to R$1 million for the specimen. “It was shocking to see that the skeleton for sale was almost whole, with the head, neck, and wings practically intact,” says Rodrigues. The researcher decided to report the case to the MPF, which sought the help of French authorities.

It did not take long to identify the owner of the specimen: Eldonia, a company specialized in the sale of fossils in Europe. Through a search and seize operation, the French police found the Pterosaur and another 45 fossils of various species, all from Araripe and evaluated at R$2.5 million. The case ended up in the courts. In 2019, the Court of Lyon decided to repatriate the fossils. However, Eldonia appealed and was able to reverse the decision. “We made another claim, and the French authorities again ordered the seizure of the specimens. We are waiting for a final decision to be able to bring them back,” says Rayol.

Biologist Rodrigo Pêgas, who studies Pterosaurs and is doing is PhD at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC), had a similar experience in 2020. “I was looking for Pterosaur images on the internet for a presentation when I found a photo of a Tupandactylus imperator,” he shares. “I clicked on the image and landed on an auction site, which was going to auction off the specimen the following day.” The minimum starting bid: €23,000 (approximately R$147,000). Pêgas clicked on the name of the owner, a German company called Fossil Worldwide, to see what other items were being auctioned. He found various fossils, all from the same northeast region. He reported the site to the MPF, which began to develop a case with German authorities. After identifying the person responsible for the auction, Kaiserslautern federal prosecutors decided on a preemptive seizure of the materials, which would remain in the custody of German authorities until the case went to court.

Different from the United States and some European countries, the fossils in Brazil are considered the property of the State, whether they are found on public or private lands and, therefore, cannot be removed from the country nor sold. The same happens in China, Mongolia, Morocco, and Myanmar (former Burma). The first Brazilian law about fossil patrimony dates back to 1942 and establishes that the extraction of these materials requires the authorization of the DNPM—in 2018, the agency became known as the National Mining Agency (ANM), linked to the Ministry of Mines and Energy. In 1990, the former Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT) published a decree stipulating that foreign scientists also need authorization to carry out collections in Brazil. One year later, the Law of Theft defined as a crime the exploitation of raw material that belongs to the State without authorization. According to Rayol, the document presented by Frey, however, would not justify the removal of U. jubatus. “The decree by MCT is clear that the collection and export of paleontological material requires its authorization.” Martill says he was unaware of the 1990 decree: “I have always worked with the DNPM and I have never been informed of the need to consult another entity.”

SMYTH, R. et al. Cretaceous Research. 2020 The U. jubatus holotype was found in the Araripe basin, but since 1995 it has been part of the collection of the Karlsruhe Museum in Germany. There is suspicion that the specimen was smuggled out of BrazilSMYTH, R. et al. Cretaceous Research. 2020

The MPF was planning to use the document to strengthen the request for repatriation of the holotype. At the same time, the SBP contacted the Karlsruhe museum to discuss the return of the material and prevent the case from reaching the courts, which prolongs the process. “The museum is prepared to negotiate,” says Renato Ghilardi, president of SBP and, despite his last name, is not related to the researcher from UFRN. “In 2016, we were able to reclaim a collection of invertebrates from the Devonian period (between 416 million and 359 million years ago) that were at the museum of the University of Cincinnati in the United States,” he shares. In the case of the Karlsruhe museum, it is assumed that many other Brazilian holotypes are with the collection, many of which were described by Martill and Frey in the 1990s. The news reporters questioned the museum if the repatriation of the U. jubatus would lead to the return of other Brazilian fossils, to which Frey of Germany responded: “This case reached political levels and, for this reason, I cannot offer my opinion. But we are in contact with the authorities.”

Fossil trafficking is a problem in various countries. In Brazil, it tends to be concentrated in the Araripe basin. In part because the region is known to be one of a few that house pre-historic animal fossils with soft tissues that are well preserved. In general, these structures—skin, connective tissues, and internal organs—are the first to decompose and rarely fossilize. In the rare instances they are preserved, this allows for study of the biology and evolution of extinct species from millions of years ago. For these reasons, fossils from Araripe have financial and scientific value. “I have heard from several foreign researchers that fossils from Araripe are very important because they are in Brazil,” comments biologist Antônio Álamo Saraiva, from the Department of Biological Sciences at the Regional University of Cariri (URCA). “I would be thrilled if the museums abroad developed the fossils for Brazil because this way Brazilians would see that it was better that they were smuggled abroad, where they were safe,” confirms Martill of Britain.

Known by Brazilian paleontologists, the researcher has already done several projects in Araripe. He is also a headstrong critic of Brazilian laws that protect fossils, which, in his opinion, obstruct the work of scientists and the development of paleontology. “For many years, the Brazilian government has underfunded its museums. The result? Various fires and the destruction of artifacts of international importance. At least the contingent of fossils in Brazilian museums is very small in relation to those in Germany, the United States, and Japan.”

Brazilian researchers refute the argument. “Since the 1980s, Araripe has had a structured museum that is devoted to the preservation of fossil patrimony in the region,” confirms biologist Allysson Pontes Pinheiro, from the Department of Physical and Biological Sciences at URCA. Located in Santana do Cariri, the Plácido Cidade Nuvens Museum of Paleontology houses a large collection of fossils, which has fostered scientific research and the education of new scientists throughout the country. “In 2005, the government of Ceará took things a step further and created the Araripe Basin National Geopark, in an effort to preserve local fossil deposits.” There are many more institutions across Brazil with the infrastructure and trained workforce to maintain national fossils and study them (see map).

Paleontologist Max Langer, from the University of São Paulo (USP), Ribeirão Preto campus, also disagrees with Martill’s argument that Brazilian laws are obstructing the work of scientists. “This is complete nonsense,” he adds. He explains that it is possible to take Brazilian fossils outside the country to study them, provided they return later. This happens with researchers from outside Brazil who can come here to do collecting, as long as they have an approved project and they are partnered with Brazilian institutions—if the international group is not associated with a national institution, the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) becomes its formal partner. “Many Brazilians work with fossils from other countries, just as many foreigners work with Brazilian fossils. The bureaucracy, in these cases, helps to hinder the smuggling,” he points out.

Nevertheless, it is common to find these materials circulating on auction sites, in private collections, or in museums in Asia, Europe, and the United States. The damage to Brazilian science is immeasurable. “Whenever a fossil is smuggled, we lose the opportunity to share our science internationally, to produce items of impact, to attract scientists into new partnerships, to achieve funding… There is a value chain tied to the fossil that is lost when it is trafficked outside of the country,” explains the paleontologist from USP.

In an effort to reinforce their investigations, the MPF also relies on the support of researchers from URCA, who, through photos, analyze smuggled fossils and certify if they are from Araripe. Once their origin is confirmed, the agency opens the investigation and engages with the countries where the specimens are located. This is only one of the many steps to achieve their repatriation. Once they are abroad, it is difficult to say how and when they left Brazil. The museums and individuals allege that they have been part of their collections for many years, thus insinuating that they left Brazil before the legislation of 1942. “It happens that fossil extraction from Araripe was not common at that time,” highlights Pêgas. Furthermore, there is no international law that makes the return of these materials obligatory. What does exist are treaties, but not all countries are signatories. “We often appeal to the principle of reciprocity in negotiations that are much more political than judicial,” comments Rayol. It would be much easier to invest in surveillance to prevent the fossils from leaving the country. Araripe had an ANM office that participated in surveillance. In October 2018, the federal government decided to transfer it to Fortaleza. The reporters tried to contact ANM to understand the motives but did not receive a response.

Aline M. Ghilardi (UFRN)

To submit reports to the MPF, researchers study the rocks in which the fossils are preserved. In the case of Araripe, grey, cream and yellow limestone, with small fragments of algae, and, not infrequently, waste manganese. One of the individuals responsible for the analyses is Antônio Saraiva, who has been fighting trafficking in the region for almost two decades through denunciations and development of technical reports for the MPF. “From time to time, they call me to go to the airport to evaluate seized fossils,” he says. Many times they are souvenirs acquired by unaware tourists in little shops spread throughout the cities near fossil quarries. “For a long time, these specimens have been freely traded in the region by local collectors. With the increase in surveillance and awareness campaigns, this trade has been reduced,” notes the biologist.

The key problem is in mining areas. Saraiva explains that almost all of the fossil quarries of Araripe are located in extraction sites of laminated limestone, a type of sedimentary rock that is used substantially in the manufacturing of flooring and tiling. The extraction of this rock began in the 1940s and today represents one of the most important economic industries in the cities of Nova Olinda and Santana do Cariri. It is also the key reason for the discovery of new fossils. “The chances of finding interesting materials in scientific excavations is very small out there. The great discoveries are almost always the result of specimens found by the quarry operators,” confirms Langer.

This is one of the reasons why fossil trafficking is more common in Araripe. “The fossils in that region are preserved in laminated limestone slabs, which are more easily manipulated by untrained individuals,” explains paleontologist Rodrigo Temp Müller, from the Federal University of Santa Maria (UFSM) in Rio Grande do Sul. “Here, we need to excavate blocks of another type of rock—sandstone or mudstone—plaster them, take them to a laboratory, and prepare them to be extracted from the fossil. This process makes the work of smugglers more difficult.” This does not mean that there are no important fossils from the South in museums abroad. The most famous case is that of one of the oldest known dinosaurs, Staurikosaurus pricei, collected in Santa Maria in 1937—therefore before the 1942 legislation—and taken to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in the United States.

Aline M. Ghilardi (UFRN)  It is common to find fish fossils in excavations in AraripeAline M. Ghilardi (UFRN) 

Pinheiro explains that the extraction of stones is allowed in Araripe, but that of fossils is not. “As these two activities, one legal and the other illegal, get mixed up, by law, mining companies must always communicate new findings to the ANM,” he says. But, in practice, this is not always what happens. “As surveillance is sloppy, it is difficult to know what they find and in whose hands this will land.”

One of the smuggling networks in the country, involving the owners of mining companies, public servants, middlemen, and Brazilian and foreign researchers, was exposed at the end of 2020. In October, after four years of investigation, the Federal Police completed 19 search and seizure warrants, two of which were the office and home of geologist Ismar de Souza Carvalho, from the Institute of Geosciences at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). The researcher is being investigated for supposedly funding rock quarries in Araripe such that, rather than communicating the discovery of new fossils to ANM, they were forwarding the material to him for purchase. During the operation, various specimens that might have been smuggled were seized. The report contacted Carvalho who was not taken prisoner through the operation. By email, he said that “as this is a discussion that is in the judicial analysis phase, it would not be appropriate that I make a statement at this time.”

According to the investigation, the smuggled fossils in this scam were sent outside the country via ports, mostly those of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. They were hidden among other materials inside containers, making it difficult for customs agents to identify them. Recently, the French police intercepted more than 1,000 fossils from Araripe in a shipment of quartz. The destination was Eldonia, the same company that tried to block the repatriation of the Pterosaur and the other 45 fossils from Araripe. Another case is that of 13 fossils of a type of aquatic reptile called Mesosaurus, trafficked from São Paulo and seized in France in 2006.

The specimens that are recuperated represent a small fraction of the Brazilian fossils throughout the world. For paleontologist Alexander Kellner, director of the National Museum at UFRJ, this problem could be mitigated if mining companies required at least one paleontological technician on their teams, to collect these materials and forward them to the local museum. “It does not help to simply ask for contraband fossils to be returned. We need to invest in the improvement of the infrastructure of our museums, in the training of our researchers, and of course, in the strengthening of surveillance.”

XING, L., STANLEY, E.L., Bai, M. et al. / Wikimedia Commons Fossils of a frog from the Cretaceous period and of an unidentified beetle, both preserved in Myanmar amberXING, L., STANLEY, E.L., Bai, M. et al. / Wikimedia Commons

The role of journals
Scientific magazines are also involved in the fight against international fossil trafficking, refusing to publish articles about materials of illegal origin or collected using unethical methods. The change happened recently, after reports of the purchase of fossils preserved in amber—fossilized tree resin—extracted in Myanmar in Southeast Asia, was funding ethnic conflicts in the region. As in Brazil, Myanmar has laws that prohibit the export of fossils. Nevertheless, the smuggling of these materials is heating up in the country. It is estimated that 321 new species were described in 2018 by foreign researchers based on rare fossils preserved in Myanmar amber.

In April 2020, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), in the United States, sent a letter to the editors of various journals, asking that they reconsider the publication of articles about fossils removed from areas of conflict. Several followed the recommendations, such as the Journal of Systematic Paleontology, which said that it would not consider contributions covering materials obtained illegally or fraudulently and that the specimens described in the magazine should be maintained in public repositories, to maximize the replicability of the findings. “This is an important step for the journals to assume a more active role to guarantee high ethical and legal standards,” said British paleobiologist Emma Dunne, from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, to Pesquisa FAPESP. “Many still close their eyes to species of questionable origin.”

Brazilian researchers expect the recommendation to also include articles about the country’s contraband fossils. It is possible this is already happening. Several researchers who participated in the report suggest that it is unlikely that the authors of the description of U. jubatus had chosen Cretaceous Research, a relatively small magazine, as the first option to publish the article. There is suspicion that other more established journals refused the manuscript for not being sufficiently clear about the origin of the fossil.