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Fossil Theft Raises Concerns About Bustling Black Market

Image: Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton is seen in this undated handout photo from Heritage Auctions in New York

An eight-foot tall, 24-foot long, 75 percent complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton is seen in this undated handout photo from Heritage Auctions in New York. Heritage Auctions via Reuters

Paleontologists have a bone to pick with fossil aficionados who are fueling an international black market for the prehistoric specimens.

The latest heist involves missing 190-million-year-old dinosaur footprints that vanished from a trail in eastern Utah this week. State officials are wondering whether the track — believed to be from the meat-eating theropod family — has ended up in the hands of a profit-seeking poacher.

That wouldn’t surprise Matthew Vavrek, head paleontologist at the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Alberta, Canada, a region of North America rich with dinosaur fossils.

“It’s no longer just the museums who want fossils. They’ve really hit a point where they’re in a financially difficult situation to purchase them,” Vavrek said. “Now there are internationally wealthy people — sometimes celebrities, sometimes investors — who are viewing dinosaur fossils as something to collect or invest in like a piece of art.”

Jurassic Age Dinosaur Tracks Missing from Tourist Site 1:26

Many countries brimming with dinosaur bones either ban or restrict whether people can sell and export the fossils. The United States, however, allows for a commercial market, although procuring dinosaur fossils from public lands is illegal and punishable by a fine and jail time.

A high-profile case in 2012 involved Florida man Eric Prokopi, who pleaded guilty to charges that he smuggled a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Bataar from Mongolia, where the sale of dinosaur bones has been outlawed since 1924.

The bones were valued at $15,000, although they were to be sold at auction for $1 million before the feds stepped in and forced their return to Mongolia.

Prokopi was also accused of taking a Saurolophus angustirostris skeleton from Mongolia and selling it for $75,000 to a California gallery.

While there’s the risk of getting caught, the payoff is tantalizing, Vavrek said.

In 1997, a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton named Sue was auctioned for a record $8.36 million to a museum in Chicago.

“Once Sue got sold, once there was a price put on that skeleton, people realized it’s worth something — a lot,” Vavrek said.

It’s unclear how much dinosaur skeletons are averaging on the black market, but U.S. officials said they want the practice to become “extinct” after the fossil flap with Mongolia.

Prokopi, however, wrote in an email obtained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that trying to stifle the black market would make matters worse.

“People that are stealing those tracks to sell them, they’re idiots ... That’s just destroying the science.”

“If (the Mongolian president) only wants to take the skeleton and try to put an end to the black market, he will have a fight and will only drive the black market deeper underground,” Prokopi warned.

Paleontologist Peter Larson, who led the team that found Sue in South Dakota and works as a for-profit excavator, said he doesn't believe illegal sales are a large part of the commercial fossil industry.

“People that are stealing those tracks to sell them, they’re idiots,” said Larson, who runs the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research. “We deplore people who steal things. That’s just destroying the science.”

Vavrek said an outright ban on fossil sales similar to that in Mongolia and China wouldn’t work if there isn’t proper enforcement.

“In some countries, fossils are treated as belonging to everyone. People don’t think about making a profit on them,” Vavrek said. “Instead, they protect them.”