BEIJING--China has adopted new regulations on access to fossils that assign enforcement to a single administrative body. Most scientists see the new rules as a positive step toward bringing greater order to the current patchwork system, which did little to deter illegal digging and trafficking of fossils. But a few researchers are worried that putting a single entity in charge could result in additional barriers to research.
In the past, valuable fossils were protected by China's Law on the Preservation of Cultural Relics. But the law failed to specify which organization would issue permits, guard against looters, and help customs officials crack down on smuggling. Looters and smugglers took advantage of the lax enforcement, and scientists were left to work out their own arrangements with local officials.
Now, the Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR) will take full responsibility for enforcement. The new regulations, which go into effect 1 October, define in general terms what kinds of fossils are protected. A forthcoming list will include so-called type specimens that have been named and categorized, rare vertebrates, fossils that illustrate key features of evolution, and those from large sites. Jiang Jianjun, director of the Department of Geological Environment within the MLR, which issued the regulations last month, predicts that uniform rules will help the government enforce environmentally sound excavation practices and improve access to the sites.
However, some scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) are concerned that the new rules could cause them to be treated like second-class citizens because their institutions aren't associated with the MLR. "I feel uncomfortable with the thought that [the Ministry of] Land and Resources will monopolize the inspection of fossil excavation," says Jin Yugan, a paleontologist at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology under CAS.
Most scientists in China are optimistic. "I think this is a small step in the right direction," agrees Zhou Zhonghe, a paleontologist at the Beijing Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology. "But many of the rules need to be more specific. Most important, I am waiting to see concrete evidence of a firm commitment to enforcement." Jiang hopes that the regulations will eventually be submitted for approval by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and provide the basis for a new law on fossil protection.
With reporting by Erik Stokstad.