Mon­go­lia seeks to crush fos­sil black mar­ket

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Ben Doo­ley

FLAM­ING CLIFFS, Mon­go­lia: For years, herder Gele­grash had a side­line bring­ing 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 an­cient 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 there nearly a cen­tury ago.

Pa­le­on­tol­o­gists and smug­glers alike have de­scended on the sands ever since.

Now the Mon­go­lian gov­ern­ment is mount­ing a cam­paign to re­claim the lost relics, hop­ing to bring home fos­sils long held in for­eign mu­se­ums and the cu­rios­ity 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 red 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 was to sell a rare, nearly com­plete Tar­bosaurus bataar spec­i­men – a smaller, fiercer cousin of Tyran­nosaurus rex.

Pa­le­on­tol­o­gists con­firmed that all known spec­i­mens of the fear­some rep­tile had come from Mon­go­lia’s Ne­megt basin, rais­ing the ques­tion of how it ended up in Man­hat­tan.

Re­mov­ing fos­sils from the coun­try is il­le­gal, but “no­body knew what to do ex­actly,” Oyun­gerel told AFP. “No­body had claimed di­nosaurs from abroad be­fore.”

Since Chap­man An­drews’ dis­cov­ery, hun­dreds of ex­pe­di­tions have trav­eled to Mon­go­lia to look for fos­sils, some with of­fi­cial bless­ing, oth­ers dig­ging them out il­le­gally and smug­gling them out of the coun­try.

It is nearly im­pos­si­ble to pre­vent thefts from Mon­go­lia’s vast steppe, said Suren­jav Munkh­saikhan, 31, who man­ages the na­tional park where Chap­man found the eggs.

She is the only full-time guardian of over 10,000 hectares of fos­sil-rich desert, work­ing with po­lice and her vol­un­teer deputy Gele­grash to com­bat crimes rang­ing from il­le­gal min­ing to the theft of rare plants.

She pa­trols the area on an old mo­tor­bike, she said, but “re­ally wants some drones.”

For now the only way she knows a fos­sil has been stolen is when cus­toms agents catch a smug­gler, or one of Gele­grash’s fel­low herders com­plains about los­ing their source of in­come.

“We never caught or ar­rested any of those thieves,” she said.

The Tar­bosaurus bataar in New York – es­ti­mated to be 70 mil­lion years old – was far from the first fos­sil to leave Mon­go­lia, but quickly cap­tured the na­tional imag­i­na­tion. Mon­go­lia’s 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 af­ter the suit was filed, the fos­sil headed home to Mon­go­lia.

More im­por­tantly, the rul­ing was an im­por­tant step to­ward un­der­min­ing the en­tire un­der­ground trade, Oyun­gerel said.

The U.S. was the “end point where all fos­sils were go­ing. We wanted to shut down that mar­ket.”

Mon­go­lia has since re­cov­ered around 30 fos­sils “di­rectly from the smug­glers’ hands,” Oyun­gerel said.

Some col­lec­tors have also be­gun to re­turn their fos­sils vol­un­tar­ily, among them Cage, who bought his T. bataar skull at auc­tion for $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, while Mon­go­lians re­garded di­nosaurs as “just bones.”

Last year, a mu­seum ded­i­cated to the re­cov­ered spec­i­mens opened in Ulaan­baatar’s former Lenin Mu­seum, a residue of the coun­try’s Com­mu­nist past.

A mon­u­men­tal bust of the founder of the Soviet Union used to oc­cupy cen­ter spot in the ex­hi­bi­tion hall. Now it lies in pieces be­hind the build­ing. T. bataar stands in his place.

The mu­seum has re­served space for more re­cov­er­ies. Among those the most sym­bol­i­cally im­por­tant tar­gets are Chap­man An­drews’ spec­i­mens, now in New York’s Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory.

When he took them, he signed a con­tract promis­ing to re­turn them to the coun­try. AMNH of­fi­cials are re­luc­tant to give up their prized spec­i­mens, ac­cord­ing to sources fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter, cit­ing con­cerns about Mon­go­lia’s abil­ity to man­age the col­lec­tion.

Sim­i­lar ar­gu­ments have been cited else­where over other de­mands for her­itage resti­tu­tion, such as Greece’s El­gin Mar­bles, now in Lon­don’s Bri­tish Mu­seum, or the Benin Bronzes of Nige­ria, now scat­tered be­tween mu­se­ums in Bri­tain, Ger­many and the U.S.

The AMNH de­clined AFP’s re­quest for com­ment.

Suren­jav and Gele­grash hope that the fos­sils can one day re­turn to their orig­i­nal rest­ing place in the Mon­go­lian desert.

The herder ad­mits the cam­paign has changed his per­cep­tion of di­nosaur re­mains. He used to value them for dif­fer­ent rea­sons.

“They’re good for health,” he said, as he poked at a small, white fos­sil stick­ing out of the red earth. “I some­times ground them up and gave them to my live­stock.”

Tourists ad­mire a Tar­bosaurus bataar skele­ton in the Ulaan­baatar mu­seum.

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