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.”