South Africa

In late 1996 I visited a fossil collector who lived in the Karoo region of central South Africa. His name was Roy Oosthuizen, but he was known affectionately to all as Uum Roy ('Uncle Roy'). Roy had been collecting fossils on his farm and in the surrounding regions for many years and had amassed one of the country's largest private collections. He had his best specimens displayed in a separate little museum he had built at the back of his lovely home, where rows of glass cases housed a wealth of rare South African fossils. He was always helpful to visiting academics who wanted to look at his collection. Many of his prize specimens were described in scientific papers, which referred the specimens back to Roy's private numbering system.

Generous as he was with his time, Roy was very possessive of his fossils and it was only a few years before his death that he was finally persuaded to bequeath his collection to the South African Museum in Cape Town, on condition that it would remain as a separate unit within the general fossil collection. Like most private collectors, the fear of having his life's work dismantled and sold off piecemeal was enough to make him prefer that his specimens go to a State institution where not only would they be well cared for, but they would also be accessible to the public and for research purposes.

Roy's collection truly was outstanding. He had complete articulated skeletons of Triassic mammal-like reptiles such as Lystrosaurus, skulls of much larger predatory reptiles, the gorgonopsids, skeletons of the little Permian marine reptile Mesosaurus (from South Africa and South America) and a large collection of invertebrate fossils of all ages. It was in his collection that, to my delight, I saw the first Early

Devonian fish fossils found in South Africa, which have since been formally described. He also had a giant sea scorpion (eurypterid), nearly two metres long, in a giant nodule, which had been studied by Professor Waterston of the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh, who had visited Roy in the early 1970s. His description of the fantastic beast was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (Waterston et al. 1985). But despite its international accolades, material in his collection could only be referred to by his own numbering system, which was inadequate for the purposes of formal taxonomic description. Still, Roy accommodated many professional palaeontologists and never forbade anyone access to his collection. His collection is today cared for by the South African Museum in Cape Town.

Fossils and fossil sites in South Africa are regarded as part of the National Estate. Fossils are deemed not to belong to individuals: they are the property of the State and, as such, are protected by law. Fossil legislation in South Africa is embodied in the National Heritage Resources Act (Act No. 25 of 1999) (the Act), which came into effect on 1 April 2000. The Act states that no person may destroy, damage, alter, deface, disturb, excavate, remove from its original position, collect or own, trade in or sell, export or attempt to export from South Africa, any fossil without a permit from the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). Anyone found guilty of breaking the law is liable for a fine, several years' imprisonment, or both.

The purpose of the new legislation is not to prevent fossils from being discovered, collected and exported, but rather to ensure that the correct information is recorded and that the fossils are available in institutions for anyone to examine either now or in the future. Permits to collect fossils are normally issued only to professionally qualified palaeontologists working at museums, universities or research institutions. In some cases, individuals collecting on behalf of museums have been given permits. Every fossil collected under a permit is curated by institutions on behalf of the nation. The fossils may not be sold or given away. Even the landowner on whose land the fossils are found must have a permit to remove them from their original position and may not sell or give them to anyone other than a museum or research institution.

The Act required that any individual in possession of a fossil collection which is not the property of a museum or research/education institution, register the collection with SAHRA before 31 March 2002 (that is, two years' grace from the time of the announcement). Registration includes a binding agreement about the fate of the collection after the owner's death, to ensure that the fossils will go to a museum that can look after them on behalf of the nation. After 31 March 2002, anyone found with unregistered fossils in their possession can be prosecuted. Permit holders are required to submit to SAHRA an annual report of their collecting activities from sites that have been investigated during the year. Copies of any publications describing the fossils must also be submitted to SAHRA. Temporary Export Permits can be issued, on request, to the curators of collections to allow for collaboration with overseas workers or to arrange study loans to visiting scientists. Occasionally, fossils are exported permanently to museums or universities in other countries for display and teaching purposes, but only when there are duplicates in South African institutions.

Clearly, then, the theft and poaching of fossils has not become the problem in South Africa that it has in many other countries.

Armed with this information and experience, I was now ready to go back to the USA and participate in the world's largest fossil trade fair, at Tucson, Arizona. There I would meet up again with Steve, so that we could make enquiries about the missing Broome dinosaur footprints, and take a close look at the full extent of the legal and illegal international trade in fossils.

Dinosaur Skull Tucson
0 -1

Post a comment