It is not part of a true culture to tame tigers, any more than it is to make sheep ferocious
(Henry David Thoreau)
Published on 11 December 2010
On the streets of Ica and nearby towns, visitors can already see the fossils — and buy them.
Nestled between the Andes and the Pacific, the sparse desert surrounding this outpost in southern Peru looks like one of the world’s most desolate areas. Barren mountains rise from windswept valleys. Dust devils dance from one dune to the next.
But to the bone hunters who stalk the Ocucaje Desert each day, the punishing winds here have exposed a medley of life and evolution: a prehistoric graveyard where sea monsters came to rest 40 million years ago. These parched lands, once washed over by the sea, guard one of the most coveted troves of marine fossils known to paleontology.
Discoveries here include gigantic fossilized teeth from the legendary 50-foot shark called the megalodon, the bones of a huge penguin with surprisingly colorful feathers and the fossils of the Leviathan Melvillei, a whale with teeth longer than those of the Tyrannosaurus rex, making it a contender for the largest predator ever to prowl the oceans.
“This is perhaps the best area in the world for marine mammals,” said Christian de Muizon, 58, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in Paris who led an expedition here in November. He ranks the Ocucaje (pronounced oh-coo-CAH-heh) and adjacent sections of desert with top fossil areas like Liaoning Province in China, where ashfall famously preserved plumed dinosaurs.
But beyond the boon to science, the discoveries here have attracted the attentions of another class of fossil hunters as well: smugglers. Officials in the capital, Lima, say seizures of illegally collected fossils are climbing.
Mario Urbina-Schmitt, a fossil hunter who works for paleontologists, rested next to a fossilized skeleton in the Ocucaje Desert last month (Moises Saman for The New York Times)
Peru is astonishingly rich in archaeological and paleontological sites, so much so that the issue is part of a delicate political debate here. The loss of national treasures to collectors from abroad has set off concerns about sovereignty, perhaps best exemplified by the feud between Peru and Yale University over Inca artifacts taken by Hiram Bingham, the American explorer typically credited with revealing the lost city of Machu Picchu to the outside world a century ago.
For now, the Ocucaje remains open to just about anyone who wants to search for fossils here. Peruvian law, while vague, classifies fossils as national patrimony and requires fossils found in the country to remain in Peru, unless special permission is granted.
But enforcement and preservation here seems like a distant dream. The government controls the desert but leases parts to mining companies, which could damage or destroy fossils. Looters have already ravaged archaeological burial sites on the desert’s fringes. The police rarely even enter the area.
Almost the only four-wheeled vehicles one sees traversing the desert are trucks carrying workers who spend weeks on the coast collecting seaweed. They sell to dealers, who then export it to Asia.
“This desert is horrible,” said Yolanda Gutiérrez, 35, a seaweed harvester. “The only things a person sees are dirt and rocks and bones.”
An assortment of fossil hunters have their own visions of how the Ocucaje should be managed. One prominent view comes from Roberto Penny Cabrera, 54, a former naval officer who says he is a descendant of Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera, the conquistador who founded the nearby city of Ica in 1563.
Mr. Penny Cabrera, who guides both backpackers and paleontologists into the Ocucaje, lives in his aristocratic family’s crumbling yellow mansion on Ica’s square.
“I am a patriot, a Peruvian, and where my foot steps that is patrimony,” he said, contending that some of the Ocucaje’s fossils should be left in the ground. Another option, he said, would be to create a museum — not in Lima, much less Berlin or Paris — but in Ica.
On the streets of Ica and nearby towns, visitors can already see such fossils — and buy them. Merchants sell fossilized shark teeth, about the size of a man’s hand, at prices from $60 to $100 apiece. They say other fossils are available, at higher prices. “Ocucaje yields many bones,” said one merchant, Marcos Conde, 35.
Meanwhile, seizures of illegally obtained fossils are increasing, surpassing 2,200 this year, compared with about 800 last year, largely at Lima’s international airport, said José Apolín of the Ministry of Culture’s office of recovery. Sometimes officials stumble upon large fossils by chance; in 2008 the police found a jawbone thought to be that of a mastodon in the cargo hold of a bus.
Recent discoveries elsewhere in Peru are raising interest in the country’s fossils and the potential for more trafficking. Almost 14,000 feet high in the Andes, for instance, a mining company controlled by Australian and Swiss investors announced a startling discovery last year: more than 100 dinosaur footprints embedded in walls of stone.
Rodolfo Salas, paleontology curator at Lima’s Natural History Museum, said evidence that his institution obtained, including photos of fossils for sale by private dealers, showed that the Ocucaje was especially vulnerable. He said the trade was supported by huaqueros, or looters of archaeological sites, who turned to fossil hunting.
Paleontologists working here fear the robbery of their discoveries. After finding a fossil thought to be a 35-million-year-old whale cranium, the team led by Mr. de Muizon camouflaged the find with burlap before it could be removed to hide it from looters.
The fossil hunters sometimes turn on one another, too. In 2008, Mr. Penny Cabrera, who roams the Ocucaje in a battered four-wheel-drive Nissan, pushed for the authorities to arrest Mario Urbina-Schmitt, 48, a well-known researcher for Peru’s Natural History Museum, while he was working with a French paleontologist, Gilles Cuny.
Mr. Urbina-Schmitt, who faces time in prison if convicted on charges of illegally removing fossils, said the case against him was absurd, revealing disarray in properly regulating fossil collection. He also said the focus on his case had shifted attention away from other episodes, like a 40-million-year-old whale fossil spirited out of the desert. “My crime is that I do good work,” he said.
The debate over trafficking aside, paleontologists say the prized fossils of the Ocucaje remain vulnerable to yet another factor: erosion. “If we leave them in the desert,” Mr. de Muizon said of the Ocucaje fossils, “they will be dead for the second time.”
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