Mongolia wants to crush fossil black market

Mongolia wants to crush fossil black market

Agence France-Presse

For years, herder Gelegrash enjoyed a side job of taking tourists to see a dinosaur skull hidden near the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia’s Gobi desert. Then, one day, it was gone.

It is one of thousands of fossils that have disappeared from the country since American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews — supposedly the inspiration for the movie character Indiana Jones — discovered dinosaur eggs nearly a century ago.

Paleontologists and smugglers have descended on the sands ever since.

Now the Mongolian government is mounting a campaign to reclaim the relics, hoping to bring home fossils long held in foreign museums or the cabinets of private collectors — such as Hollywood star Nicolas Cage — who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for them on the open market.

In his yurt near the sandstone cliffs, Gelegrash laughed about the skull’s potential value: “If I had known it was worth so much, I would have sold it myself.”

The dinosaur repatriation drive began when the husband of the country’s then-culture, sport and tourism minister, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, learned a New York auction house planned to sell a rare, nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar specimen — or tarbosaurus, which means “alarming lizard — a smaller, fiercer cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Paleontologists confirmed that all known specimens of the reptile had come from Mongolia’s Nemegt basin. Removing fossils from the country is illegal, but “nobody knew what to do exactly,” Oyungerel said. “Nobody had claimed dinosaurs from abroad before.”

Since Chapman Andrews’ discovery, hundreds of expeditions have traveled to Mongolia to look for fossils. Some had official blessing, while others smuggled them out of the country.

It is nearly impossible to prevent thefts from Mongolia’s vast steppe, said Surenjav Munkhsaikhan, 31, who manages the park where Chapman found the eggs. She is the only full-time guardian of more than 10,000 hectares of fossil-rich desert, working with police and her volunteer deputy, Gelegrash. She patrols the area on an old motorbike.

For now, the only way she knows a fossil has been stolen is when customs agents catch a smuggler or a herder complains about losing a source of income. “We never caught or arrested any of those thieves,” she said.

The T. bataar in New York — an estimated 70 million years old — was far from the first fossil to leave Mongolia, but it captured the national imagination. Mongolia President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj took the case directly to the U.S. government.

In 2012, a U.S. federal prosecutor filed a lawsuit seeking the forfeiture of the relic from the firm that auctioned it. The case ended in victory two years later.

The fossil headed home to Mongolia, and the ruling was an important step in undermining the underground trade, Oyungerel said. Mongolia has since recovered about 30 fossils from smugglers, Oyungerel said.

Some collectors have also begun to return fossils voluntarily, among them Cage, who bought his T. bataar skull at auction for U.S. $276,000 before learning it had been smuggled out of Mongolia.

Authorities were once slow to recognize the value of Mongolia’s paleontological heritage, according to Oyungerel, but a museum dedicated to recovered specimens recently opened in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. (Pictured: A museum in Ulaanbaatar displays the Tyrannosaurus bataar that was returned from the United States.)’’