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Culture

The Secret World of Dinosaur Smuggling

by Mark Hay

August 19, 2014
Tarbosaurus bataar

Last fall, Mongolia gutted the old Lenin Museum in the heart of its capital, Ulaanbaatar, to make way for the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. Unbeknownst to many, Mongolia is something of a dinosaur bonanza, home to the first dinosaur egg finds in the 1920s and quarries that, even today, yield dozens of fossils in a single dig. So it’s probably high time that the country throws its weight behind one centralized facility to highlight this unique aspect of their national history (and cash in on the inevitable throngs of dino-crazed tourists). But the museum didn’t come together in a bid for national glory or tourist dollars. It sprung up because outsiders have been pilfering the best of Mongolia’s pre-human history for years—that is, until two years ago when the government decided to finally act on reclaiming their heritage.

In 2012, Mongolian officials noticed the nearly complete skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar, a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus rex typically found in local excavation pits, for sale through Heritage Auctions of Texas. The bones were valued between $950,000 and $1.5 million. The Mongolian government quickly investigated, determining that the artifact likely came from the country’s Gobi desert, spirited across the border sometime between 1995 and 2005. While it’s legal in many nations for landowners to sell anything they excavate, Mongolia has had laws in place since 1924 declaring all excavated dinosaur bones to be cultural property of the state. Bottom line: The dinosaur skeleton didn’t leave legally. But rather than respond to Mongolia’s request to recover the skeleton, the auctioneers sold it in May 2012 for $1.05 million.

Sue

It may be hard to believe, but illegal dinosaur smuggling is actually commonplace. Border towns in the Gobi like Erlian, on the Chinese side, have earned quite a reputation for their black market dinosaurs, and vendors at fossil and mineral shows, like those in Denver and Tucson, reportedly source from shady suppliers all the time. Even most major museum acquisitions arrive through the black market, including Sue, one of the most famous T. rex skeletons in the world. But investigations into this illicit trade are rare and incomprehensive, even though scientists openly express their frustrations that museums are increasingly losing bids to private collectors.  To make it worse, academics also have an extremely difficult time working with fossils without knowing the context they were found in.

The Mongols got lucky when a busted smuggler stepped up and offered to collaborate with investigators. He revealed how, from 2010 to 2014, he’d imported over a dozen dinosaurs into the U.S. by disassembling the bones, shipping them through the U.K. in small batches, lying on the customs forms, and then reassembling them in his own backyard. He helped initiate cases against numerous sellers across America, fomenting a crackdown on the illegal trade.

Mongolian Dinosaur Eggs

Still, the Mongolian government had a bit more maneuvering to do before they could get their fossils back. In the court case United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, the defense argued that the skeleton was composed of fragments, and could have come from sites outside of Mongolia. But the Mongols proved that the color of the bones was distinct to a specific Mongol excavation region, and that the skeleton was a complete specimen. After a year of heated contestation, the skeleton returned home to great fanfare in 2013—the Mongol people christened it Mongol Baatar, the Mongol Hero. And more fossils followed—17 were returned this summer, and officials hope to eventually bring that number up to 31. The Mongolians could have simply stuffed the dinosaurs into their existing Natural History Museum, but instead they opted for a brand new institution, which also displays assorted, though less historical, items used in the recovery process, like the Blackberry their lawyer used while fighting for the bones’ return. The museum is as much about Mongolian pride as it is about dinosaurs.

It’s unlikely that Mongolia will ever actually get back the bulk of what’s been taken. Too many bones go missing—we have no way of knowing the true scope of the fossil black market—and museums would be loath to part with their collections. But in a nation that’s never experienced a real win in this area before, these recent repatriations and what they mean for Mongolia are hopefully just the begining; with any luck many more dessicated dinos will find a home in the the Central Museum.

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