The discovery of a fossil trafficking network in Brazil’s northeastern state of Ceará has shone a spotlight on a little noticed but thriving, decades-old illegal trade.
In late October, authorities in Brazil launched an operation to combat illegal fossil trafficking in the northern Chapada do Araripe region, one of the world’s richest fossil areas, Estadão reported.
The bust, dubbed “Operation Santana Raptor,” is part of an investigation that began in 2017 after local police were informed about the illegal export and trade of fossils in the municipalities of Nova Olinda and Santana do Cairi.
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According to a police statement, the operation targeted businessmen, civil servants, and middlemen who negotiated rare fossils in the region. A professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who allegedly paid monthly bribes to local quarry workers to illegally obtain fossils is also under investigation, according to the police news release.
“The quarry workers and the middlemen were in close contact with the professor, who funded regular expeditions.[When you find a fossil], the correct procedure is to contact the National Mining Agency (Agência Nacional de Mineração – ANM) to let them know. Instead of doing that, the “peixeiros” were co-opted,” Alan Robson Alexandrino Ramos, a local police chief, said at a news conference.
While fossil trafficking has not seen much attention in Brazil, it is not a new phenomenon. Since at least as far back as the 1990s, criminal networks have been illegally smuggling fossils out of Ceará, where Chapada do Araripe is located, to sell to buyers in the United States, Japan and Europe. Between 1998 and 2008, officials in Ceará seized 32,000 fossils that had been illegally exported to North America and Europe, according to local media outlet O Povo.
And in 2014, Taissa Rodrigues, a paleontologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Espírito Santo, came across an entire pterosaur fossil for sale on eBay for $262,000. After she contacted the Brazilian Attorney General’s Office, an investigation found the near-complete skeleton of the large flying reptile in France. It had been smuggled out of the Chapada do Araripe region in the 1980s, as well as 45 other fossils of sea turtles, arachnids, fish, reptiles, insects and plants, all of them millions of years old, Folha De S. Paulo reported.
In 2019, a judge in France ordered the repatriation of the batch of 45 fossils, Nature reported. Paleontologists in Brazil hailed it as a momentous moment in the fight against illegal fossil trading.
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Fossil trafficking is worth the risk for smugglers, given the low amount of attention it receives and the high profits involved. Prices can vary greatly depending on the quality of the fossil, how much of the skeleton is intact and the rarity of the species.
For example, a fossil of Dastilbe crandalli — a freshwater fish that lived between 96 and 113 million years ago — was bought for as little as 20 reais ($3) in Ceará.
“In Brazil, fossils are sold at a lower price. Once in Europe, they are worth thousands of euros,” Rafael Ribeiro Rayol, the government prosecutor who led the investigation, told G1 Globo.
Fossil trafficking also greatly hampers scientific research and leads to a significant loss of cultural heritage. “When an important fossil is found and sold, our scientists stop studying them. We are no longer discovering our own history,” Taissa Rodrigues told Estadão.
The Araripe Basin is famous for its abundant and well-preserved fossils, including many from the Cretaceous period (145 to 66 million years ago), which ended with the mass extinction of dinosaurs.
But the sheer size of the Chapada do Araripe, which is six times larger than the city of São Paulo, has facilitated criminal networks involved in fossil trafficking as authorities struggle to gain control of the region.
And while Brazil does have some laws designed to protect fossils, fossil trafficking goes largely unchecked. Many criminal networks routinely run afoul of the convention, with those involved claiming not to have known it was illegal to sell fossils.