Chasing dinosaurs in Myanmar's conflict-ridden north

MYITKYINA: “Amber hunters” on a quest for a Jurassic Park-style discovery of dinosaur remains sift through mounds of the precious resin in Myanmar–a lucrative trade that captivates palaeontologists but also fuels a decades-long conflict in the far north.

The trading takes place just a few dozen kilometres from the fighting between Myanmar’s army and ethnic Kachin rebels battling for autonomy, land, identity–and natural resources that help finance both sides.

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His speciality is ‘inclusions’, sap that has trapped parts of plants, animals and even dinosaurs before hardening into amber–history suspended inside the resin.

Find the right buyer and he could pocket up to $100,000 a piece in a shady industry that sees most amber smuggled across the border to China.

However, most amber heralds not from the Jurassic but from the later Cretaceous Period, up to 100 million years ago.

The best preserved ‘inclusions’ offer today’s scientists and collectors a three-dimensional fossil, with some creatures even frozen mid-movement.

There are amber deposits found all over the world but, for palaeontology, the mines of Kachin are ‘irreplaceable’, explains 36-year-old Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing.

“The amber mining area in Kachin is the only Cretaceous period amber mining site in the world that is still engaged in commercial mining,” he says. “There’s no better place than Myanmar.”

Lida Xing shot to fame among fellow palaeontologists in 2015 when he brought back part of a feathered dinosaur tail to China from Myanmar that dated back some 99 million years.

The excitement of his discovery, though, was tinged with disappointment when he returned to try to find the source.

“They said they did not know. They had probably already sold or smashed it. This dinosaur might have even been a complete one with a head,” he told AFP in Beijing.

Amateur amber hunters aside, the main challenge for traders and collectors is working in a conflict zone.

An upsurge in fighting between the army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) over recent years has left more than 100,000 people displaced in the region.

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“We almost could not reach the mining area because it was very dangerous,” Lida Xing says of his 2015 trip. “We sneaked in when the situation eased quite a lot, but no scientist was able to go inside after that.”

“This is a severe problem because, for palaeontology, you obtain a lot of useful information from the geological conditions and strata — but we were not able to do this.”

Amber, jade, timber and gold are also “major drivers” of the conflict in northern Myanmar, says Hanna Hindstrom from monitoring group Global Witness.

Without sourcing responsibly, any company trading Myanmar amber “could be causing or contributing to a range of harms including conflict and human rights abuses”, she adds.

Akbar Khan, a 52-year-old self-described “extreme fossil in amber hunter” who runs a streetside stall in downtown Bangkok shrugs off the risks and ethical questions.

He makes frequent visits to Kachin and explains the adrenaline rush he gets from finding dinosaur parts is like nothing else.

“You feel like you’re walking in clouds, in heaven,” he says.

“If people have a big diamond, so what? The world is full of big diamonds…but the world is not full of dinosaurs in amber.”

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