A group of New Zealand natural heritage advocates are calling on the Government to change legislation to better protect the remains of extinct native species such as moa and huia.
Precious skeletons, bones, eggs and feathers increasingly are being sold online in a trend that is horrifying experts who say the country is losing valuable, irreplaceable scientific evidence and history by selling it to the highest bidder.
They say members of the public who discover these rare native artefacts used to hand them in to museums, but are now seeing an easy buck by selling them on the internet.
The group, comprising seven academics, researchers, and museum professionals, have been secretly tracking online sales since 2005.
And they've been stunned at the level of traffic - with around 100 sales last year alone representing more than 3000 pieces of bone, double that of 2011 - and are worried about the legitimacy of some items.
APNZ was told of one example where a bone fragment being sold as moa was actually a piece of human skull.
Last month, a complete foot from a stout-legged moa was advertised on Trade Me for $2300.
Most of the online action has concerned moa bone, but other specimens at risk include huia - a wattlebird species that became extinct early last century - the giant Haast's eagle, and native goose.
Now, the group has lodged a submission to Government calling for a law change to ban the sale of extinct natural heritage items.
"It is a huge concern that the irreplaceable fossil heritage of New Zealand's iconic taxa such as moa is being traded as mere objects," said Dr Trevor Worthy, a leading researcher of New Zealand fossil fauna and research fellow at Flinders University, Adelaide.
Allowing the unrestricted trade is degrading nationally significant heritage that "belongs to all New Zealanders", he said.
"Scientists have, to date, literally just begun to understand this heritage," said Dr Worthy.
"Pillaging of sites to feed a growing market in bone sales will inevitably lead to the destruction of unique resources."
Only a handful of intact moa eggs have ever been found, while Te Papa museum have just six perfect or near perfect moa skulls.
The removal of any material from an archaeological site or conservation land is already illegal.
But anything said to have been found on private land can be sold under current laws. A permit is required to export goods overseas.
A law change could either fall under the Wildlife Act, or the Protected Objects Act.
A spokeswoman for Conservation Minister Nick Smith said he was aware of the issue and was seeking advice from the Department of Conservation on options for controlling the domestic trade of moa bones and other extinct species
• Online sales of extinct species have soared in recent years, according to data collected by the team.
• From 2005 to 2010, there was on average around 12 successful trades a year.
• In 2011, sales jumped to more than 60 items, and in 2012 there were around 100 sales, involving 3000 pieces of bones.
• The flightless moa, native to NZ, was the tallest bird to ever have lived, with the female giant moa standing more than 3m tall and weighing more than 250kg.
• There were 10 species, with some moa, such as Mantell's and coastal moa, being smaller than a turkey.
• It is generally accepted that moa were hunted to extinction by about AD 1400.
• When moa bones were first found by European scientists in 1840, it sparked international interest.
• The massive Haast's eagle, which largely preyed on moa, became extinct shortly after its main food source died out.