IT took millions of years for prehistoric fossils in Manitoba to be unearthed by Joseph Hatcher -- only to see some of them vanish into thin air.
"There's nothing as heartbreaking as you've spent a month or two months excavating a grand skeleton -- a big mosasaur -- only to show up the next day and find it's been poached or destroyed," said Hatcher, the curator of the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden. "Right here in Manitoba.
"As researchers we're wondering what happened to our site? What happened to our skeleton?"
Hatcher was making his point about the disappearance and destruction of Manitoba fossils in the wake of a presentation Friday sponsored by the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics.
Topic: stealing dinosaur bones.
Philip Currie, a professor and a Canadian research chair in dinosaur paleobiology, lectured students about the global increase in poachers trafficking dinosaur bones -- even entire dinosaur skeletons -- to buyers willing to pay more than $1 million for a prehistoric skull that may or may not be authentic.
Currie said fossil finds in places such as Mongolia, China and Argentina are often picked clean by poachers who will destroy countless bones to end up with a claw or tooth that can sell for thousands of dollars on the open market.
"There's an unbelievably huge amount of destruction going on," said Currie, whose 30-plus-year career hunting prehistoric fossils was one model for Sam Neill's character of paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. "It's heartbreaking to see how much damage is going on."
In an effort to stem the illegal sale of dinosaur bones -- either by auction or eBay -- some countries, including the Mongolian government, have started to crack down, resulting in recent seizures of six specimens in the U.S. and another 30 in the U.K.
"That makes you realize how crazy the market is," Currie said. "This is the tip of the iceberg. There are many countries so poor they don't care about protecting their resources."
So who are the buyers?
"There's no question that major dinosaur fossils are being sold to very rich people," Currie said. "Movie stars, business executives, you name it. People are building houses bigger than they've ever built them before, with huge living rooms. Sometimes they just want something that's going to fill that space. Believe it or not, there are some people in the States with T. rexes in their living rooms.
"It's exactly the same as the ivory trade," Currie added. "As far as shaming them, I don't think they're too worried about the implications of all of this. In some cases, they're just plain not aware of it at all. Let's face it, a lot of these people aren't that reachable by us."
But destruction or disappearance of fossils can take many forms.
In Manitoba, Hatcher believes fossils are routinely picked up by hikers or day trippers unaware they are breaking the law: Regulations under the Manitoba Heritage Resources Act of 1987 stipulate it's illegal to search for, excavate or maintain fossils without a government-issued permit.
"I don't think it's about the commercialization of the fossils -- at least not yet," he noted. "But I worry about the greater implications. I've noticed in years where we have an amazing discovery that generates lots of media coverage, the following year we suffer more poaching events than the previous 10. Then we'll have a year or two where it's quiet and there's no discoveries, poaching almost stops. It's non-existent. If we're back in the news, suddenly there's poaching again. It's a cycle."
If prices of prehistoric finds continue to make headlines, "it won't take long before people start to think about what they can do here," Hatcher said.