The indictments come in the wake of a massive seizure of more than 1,000 fossils this past fall in France. The confiscated specimens were apparently on their way to museums in Europe and Asia. Brazilian police have yet to unveil the names of the accused smugglers, but authorities claim one of them is a German national who works for renowned museums around the world, including several in the U.S.
Brazilian law stipulates that only those affiliated with national or state research institutions may dig for fossils. All others must seek authorization from the Brazilian National Department of Mineral Production. But such permits are almost never granted.
The law also says that any fossils found in Brazil are property of the government, and cannot be taken without permission.
"Despite this, people are taking fossils out of the country in tonnes per month," Max Langer, president of the Brazilian Society of Palaeontology, told Nature. "Foreign researchers know it’s illegal. They could work here in Brazil with Brazilian partners, but they choose not to."
Brazilian scientists like Alexander Kellner, a palaeontologist at the National Museum of Brazil, are mostly supportive of the law, but say any crackdown on the illegal trade should be accompanied by increased funding for Brazilian scientists to carry out excavation work.