Palaeontology and the Law

Fossils and the Law in South Africa

Fossils and fossil sites in South Africa are regarded as part of the National Estate. Fossils do not belong to individuals. They are the property of the state and are protected by law.

The legislation protecting fossils is embodied in the National Heritage Resources Act (Act No.25 of 1999) 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). A person found guilty of breaking the law is liable for a fine and several years imprisonment, or both. Customs officials are aware of the law and have confiscated fossils when attempts have been made to export them without permission in the past.

The purpose of the 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 immediately 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 in the past individuals, collecting on behalf of museums, have been also given permits. All fossils that are collected in terms of a permit are curated by institutions on behalf of the nation. The fossils may not be sold or given away. Even a farmer who owns land on which fossils occur 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.

One of the changes in the new Act is that anyone in possession of a fossil collection, which is not the property of a public museum or research/education institution, is required to register the collection before 31st March 2002 with SAHRA. The owner of the registered collection is also required to notify SAHRA about the future of the collection, ie. the name of the person or institution to whom they wish to bequeath the collection for continued safe-keeping on behalf of the nation. Anyone found with fossils in their possession after 31st March, which are not registered, 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 are also required to be submitted to SAHRA.

Temporary Export Permits are normally issued, on request, to the curators of collections to allow for collaboration with overseas workers or to arrange loans to visiting scientists who may borrow fossils for a year or two for study purposes. 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.

Application for a permit can be made to:
The South African Heritage Resources Agency

Ms Mariagrazia Galimberti
P.O. Box 4637
Cape Town, 8000

Tel (021) 462-4502 / Fax (021) 462-4509

Applications are circulated to members of a committee and if no objections are received, a permit may be issued. SAHRA is in the process of drafting a new schedule for permit applicationf fees and once this has been communicated to the palaeontological community, they will be posted here.