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In New Zealand, a 23-Million-Year-Old Fossil Is Carried Away by Parties Unknown

On the banks of Little Whanganui River, on New Zealand’s remote West Coast, the fossilized ribs and vertebrae of a whale have been embedded in a shelf of sandstone for about 23 million years.

That is, until Sunday.

As flabbergasted local residents watched, two men, armed with a rock saw and chisel, cut the fossil out of the rock in broad daylight, before rowing it down the river to a trailer, where a woman was waiting, and driving away.

Tom Horncastle, who lives near the river, said he could hear the buzzing of a loud chain saw that afternoon. At first, he thought people might be cutting firewood on the beach. But when he went down to the water, he saw the people carving out the four-square-foot fossil, a beloved feature of the local landscape.

Flanked by other residents, he asked the men, who were accompanied by a child, what they were doing.

The police, who confirmed that they had received reports about the incident, said they had referred them to the Department of Conservation. Jacob Fleming, a spokesman for the department, said it had not been involved in the fossil’s removal and that the land and waterway were not under its jurisdiction. A regional council did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Ngai Tahu, the main iwi of New Zealand’s South Island, said it had nothing to do with the incident. And Francois Tumahai​, a spokesman for Ngati Waewae, the local hapu or subtribe, told the New Zealand news outlet Stuff that it had not authorized the people to take the fossil.

Some Karamea residents believe they have identified one of the people who took it. The New York Times sent a message to a Facebook page apparently belonging to that person, but got no reply.

A thriving fossil trade has led to similar incidents. In the mid-1990s, fossilized dinosaur footprints were taken in a spate of thefts in Broome, Western Australia. While one footprint was found in 1998, a set of stegosaurus prints taken in 1996 have never been recovered.

In the United States, fossils have been pilfered from public lands. And in New Zealand, they have been pulled from the shelves of museums.

“New Zealand has had an uptick in private collecting over the past decade or so,” Bobby Boessenecker, a geologist at the College of Charleston in South Carolina who previously worked in New Zealand, said in an email. “A market for fossils that did not exist 15 years ago is now growing.”

This fossil, which was known to researchers, was certainly from a large cetacean and most likely a baleen whale, Dr. Boessenecker said. While New Zealand prohibits fossil collection in certain areas, the site near Karamea is not among them, he said.

Legally, the fossil could not be exported. “The establishment of a fossil market, and difficulty of tracking fossils after they’ve been collected, however, means that all bets are off,” Dr. Boessenecker said.

“New Zealand is a pioneer society still,” said Richard Holdaway, a paleontologist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, referring to its scant legal protections for fossils. “And if it’s there, and I want it, I’ll go and get it.”

He added: “Some of us are working behind the scenes to improve that protection, but it’s a long job.”

Laws on fossil collection differ around the world, though they are often incomplete or compromised by the interests of other groups, including fossil traders, said John Long, a paleontologist at Flinders University in Australia and the author of the book “The Dinosaur Dealers.”

“Politicians just don’t care to get a law in place,” he said. “It’s a terrible situation, but it’s just, dare I say, the way things are right now.”

For people in Karamea, a cherished experience is gone for good.

“You just feel like something’s being torn away,” said David Guppy, who lives in the area. He added, “Even if they’re found to be in the wrong and the fossil is brought back — I mean, it’s not the same.”

But with prosecution apparently unlikely, that is a long shot. “The legality — well, I have no idea,” said Dr. Holdaway, the New Zealand paleontologist. “But ethically? It’s total environmental vandalism.”

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