In an article published this week in The New York Times, one paleontologist said about the poaching issue: “This is huge. It isn’t just one or two specimens. A fair proportion of very good fossils just disappear from knowledge, and few are ever seen again.”
Dinosaurs first roamed the planet some 230 million years ago, and researchers still have many questions about how they lived as well as why they died out about 65 million years ago, for reasons that remain a mystery. The market for dinosaur fossils heated up in 1997 after a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton unearthed in South Dakota by a commercial fossil hunter was purchased by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History for a record $8.4 million. At 42 feet long and 12 feet high at the hips, it is the largest, most complete and best-preserved T. rex ever found (and is dubbed Sue in honor of the woman who made the historic discovery).
Today, a single dino bone can sell for thousands of dollars at auction houses or on websites such as eBay. As a result, poachers are digging up–and destroying–fossil-rich sites in places such as the Nemegt Basin in the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia. The area has been plagued by looting, according to The Times’ article, despite the fact Mongolia has had laws since the 1920s that fossils are national property and can’t be commercially exported.
In one recent case that made international headlines, an American fossil dealer, Eric Prokopi of Florida, pleaded guilty in December 2012 to smuggling dinosaur skeletons into the United States from Mongolia. In May of that year, Prokopi put up for auction in New York City a Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton measuring 8 feet tall and 24 feet long . A relative of T. rex, T. bataar resided in the Gobi Desert around 70 million years ago and was discovered there by researchers in 1946. The auctioned skeleton consisted of about 75 percent of the prehistoric carnivorous creature’s original bones, a rarity to be that complete, and sold for some $1 million. However, the deal didn’t go through because a paleontologist warned Mongolia’s president that the specimen likely had been stolen from his country and he in turn asked the United States to investigate. American law enforcement agents eventually arrested Prokopi, who was accused of smuggling the T. bataar bones into the United States then reassembling them into skeleton form. As part of a plea deal, Prokopi agreed to hand over the T.bataar bones along with other dinosaur skeletons he confessed to illegally importing. In May 2013, U.S. officials returned the stolen T. bataar to the Mongolians at a ceremony in New York, and it’s now on display at a new dinosaur museum in Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital city.
Despite the successful repatriation of the T. bataar skeleton, scientists say paleontological poaching remains a serious issue in Mongolia and other locations, and they contend governments can do more to safeguard their dinosaur sites, crack down on the illegal sale of prehistoric fossils and educate the public about the problem. Additionally, they urge private collectors to ask about a fossil’s provenance before buying it.