Statement on Illicit Speleothem Trading

Statement on Illicit Speleothem Trading

Prepared by Prof. Elery Hamilton-Smith, AM,
Chair, IUCN / WCPA Task Force on Caves and Karst

With the assistance of members of the task force and concerned officers of the International Union of Speleology.

January 2005.


During the last twelve months, there has been a great increase in the number and size of speleothems being offered for sale in various countries.

This is a matter of considerable concern to all of us who are about the conservation and protection of the world’s caves. If these specimens are openly sold, it not only draws attention to them as a potentially marketable commodity, but also serves to make vandalism appear legitimate to many people.

This trade has taken various forms over a considerable period of time:

· Harvesting of small specimens as souvenirs, often associated with cave tourism, but also those shops or dealers who service mineral collectors. This is a world-wide issue.
· The harvesting of speleothems is particularly widespread in China and the Philippines and is often brought to notice from there.
· As a specific recent example, “. . . many caves in northern Malaysia are robbed of stalactites and crystals that are openly for sale outside the caves and in towns. This has been documented several times on TV, and is accepted as being OK as it provides an income for the local people ! (Liz Price July 2004)
· Mining or harvesting of karren pinnacles (in many SE Asian Countries), often from agricultural land, which are then sold as garden ornaments

This problem is clearly related to similar practices in relation to mineral specimens of high quality and a wide range of fossils. For instance, two men from Korea were recently apprehended in South Africa where they had stolen stromatolites; many fossils have certainly been stolen from Australian sites; and there is a massive trade in cave bear and other specimens, largely derived from the former USSR countries.

Recent Developments

Most recently, there has been an unprecedented change in the scale of the trade and amounts of money involved. Enormous specimens of speleothems have been sold from Chinese sites. Traders usually claim that this is not damaging because the specimens are taken from areas where massive construction is taking place, or where the caves will be inundated by dams. As noted above, this is not a satisfactory assumption or argument. The practice does legitimate wider vandalism.
Some examples of this problem:

. . . a large exhibition of cave decoration at the Sunway Lagoon Centre in Kuala Lumpur, and a second display at another venue has just been announced. These are being exhibited as “Scholar Rocks” from the traditional view that they symbolised the growth of wisdom amongst scholars. It has been reported (but not confirmed) that these rocks are currently being excavated in the Lingbi area of Anhui province, where they have apparently been buried by various landscape changes. (It is also very clear that this massive level of exploitation bears relatively little relationship to the traditional scholar rocks. (Liz Price & Elery H-S, July 2004)

One of the displays in Kuala Lumpur.

In July/Aug a shopping centre in Kuala Lumpur set up an exhibition of more than
210 pieces of stalagmites, stalactites, crystals, and pieces of gour pools. They were incredibly beautiful specimens, many more than 2m high, 2 m long and also many crystal pieces. They were all mounted on nice wooden bases. I was unable to find out any details of the origin of the stalactites. (Liz Price July 2004)

Next, a water theme park near Kuala Lumpur has an exhibition of the largest collection of "scholar's rocks" in the world. (see comment above) These also include speleothems. Some stalactites are for sale US$ 140,000, $ 225,000 and another is valued at $410,000. All weigh over half a ton and are purportedly from China.
The shopping centre in KL changed its theme and set up a new exhibition of stone
and wood carvings as well as other artefacts with cultural and historical values
from China. These included some stalactites about 3-4 m high.
(Liz Price, July 2004)

A shop in Brussels sells (9000 Euros each) large draperies from China. It
had 3 and has already sold 2. When I asked in person in this shop, it seems that this merchant is not the only one in Europe to buy a lot of formations. He says he has a certificate that justifies the origin and the reason of their extraction: they were removed before the cave was to be flooded with water due to the construction of a dam. (Jean-Pierre Bartholeyns)

When I was recently in China, I stayed at a hotel in Guilin where a series of stalagmites were set in a pool in the foyer (adjacent to the Coca-Cola machine). Then we visited the famous Reed Flute Cave where the path to the cave was virtually lined with an avenue of stalls selling speleothems. But I must also say that when I formally recommended that such sales brought discredit to the nation and should be stopped, there were many expressions of support. I have also seen an immense change over the last year in the general attitudes to conservation in at least Southern China, so perhaps we should be optimistic and certainly should support those who are working for improved environmental management in China. (Elery H-S)

At Reed Flute Cave, Guilin.

A Proposal for Action

In spite of the problems in prevention, it seems that we need to establish a joint body, involving at least the IUCN / WCPA Task Force and the International Union of Speleology. Such a body could further investigate the problem and potential responsive strategies, and enter into negotiation with governments or international organisations. Accordingly, we are looking to hold a meeting in conjunction with the International Congress of Speleology, being held in Athens on the 21-28th August.


Individuals who have both passed on information of specific incidents, and/or advised on the content of this document include:

Liz Price, Malaysia
Carol Hill, Tom Lera, Val and Jim Werker, all from USA
Patrick Cabrol, France
Mike Buchanan, South Africa
Jean-Pierre Bartholeyns, Belgium, (Chair UIS Karst Protection Department)
Paolo Forti, Italy

Popular posts from this blog