In a cultural repatriation ceremony held last week nearly four tonnes of fossils were returned to Argentina by United States Customs and Immigration Enforcement officials who had seized the items in raids back in 2006. dinosaur egg toy

The fossils, believed to date from the Mesozoic era, otherwise known as the Age of Reptiles, include an unspecified number of dinosaur eggs, plus shell fragments, fossilised pine cones and rare fossil prehistoric arthropods. They were seized during a raid on a fossil dealer at the 2006 Tucson Gem and Mineral show. The US Customs and Immigration officials were following a lead provided by Interpol, a reflection on the sad fact that the smuggling of rare artifacts such as fossils is an international business, one that is growing all the time with dinosaur fossils being particularly sort after by smugglers who then sell on to private collectors.

Raid by United States Customs Officials

The US officials raided a vendor at the show and subsequently impounded a number of other specimens at a nearby warehouse, suspecting that these objects had been illegally imported into the United States of America.

Posing as buyers, US Customs officials conducted surveillance, taking photos of suspicious specimens and making detailed notes about the artifacts for sale. Using the evidence that the team had gathered a federal warrant was issued and the consignment of fossils impounded.

There have been a number of such incidents over the last few years. US federal agents deploying such tactics to infiltrate gangs of highly organised fossil smugglers. Dinosaur fossils have been smuggled out of China, Mongolia as well as from South America, commentators say that the black market for dinosaur fossils, especially items like dinosaur eggs is very big.

US Customs issued a statement to coincide with the official ceremony handing the fossils back to the Argentine Government stating that the investigation is continuing. State department officials confirmed that the fossils would be returned back to Argentina citing that this case was an excellent example of cross-border co-operation between authorities as smuggling of fossils is clamped down upon.

Fossil Smuggling Still Continues

Unfortunately, the smuggling of fossils and other rare items out of countries like Argentina, China and Thailand is a common occurrence. State authorities are attempting to clamp down on such activities, however the relative lack of specialist knowledge hampers many such investigations. In addition, the rapid rise in auction prices for rare fossils has added greater impetus to illegal smuggling of such items.

There have been a number of cases recently concerning the smuggling of Mesozoic fossils, including a number of incidents involving the smuggling of rare Titanosaur eggs. A number of consignments have been seized by Government authorities, many contained complete or nearly complete eggs believed to have come from a Titanosaur nesting site in Argentina. It is not entirely clear which genus of dinosaur may have laid the eggs but it is likely they came from a dinosaur such as Saltasaurus.

Saltasaurus Eggs Smuggled Out of the Country

Fossils of Saltasaurus have been found in Argentina and Uruguay, an extensive nesting site associated with this animal was unearthed in Patagonia (southern Argentina). Fossil trackways indicate that Saltasaurus lived in herds. The eggs were about the size of footballs, the animals had excavated shallow holes, then laid their eggs before covering them with sand and vegetation, in a similar fashion to American Alligators.

Much of this activity is being directed by organised criminal gangs, however, fraud in the sale of fossils and other items such as gemstones and minerals is quite common. Whether this is due to a genuine mistake on behalf of the vendor or whether it is a deliberate attempt to mislead the buyer is often unclear. However, palaeontologists have postulated that a large number of rare and scientifically important fossils are being smuggled and then sold on to private collectors in a huge “black market” for fossil material.