Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Million Dollar Mongolian Dinosaur Scandal

Original article published in "The Week" Magazine

  Eric Prokopi (US resident), a self described “Commercial Palaeontologist”, was arrested by agents from the US Department of Homeland Security at his home in Gainseville, Florida last October. Prokopi fell under suspicion after he was identified as the dealer behind the $1.1 million sale of a Tarbosaurus (a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex), at an auction in New York last summer. The sale caused an international furore – the president of Mongolia, where the dinosaur was discovered – tried to have it stopped, and the skeleton was eventually seized. On 27 December, Porkopi pleaded guilty to fraudulently importing the dinosaur and agreed to hand over several others. He faces 17 years in prison.

What exactly did he do wrong?

While it is legal to sell fossils and dinosaur remains once they have been dug up, most countries, Particularly China, Mongolia, Morocco and Brazil – which between them boast some of the world’s best paleontological hunting grounds – prohibit the export of skeletons found in their soil. All dinosaur digs must have permits from the government. Prokopi was accused of running a “one-man black market” to flout these rules, using middle men in the UK and Japan to smuggle dinosaur relics out of Mongolia for sale in the US.  A British fossil dealer from Dorset – who has not been accused of any wrongdoing – allegedly transported the Tarbosaurus across the Atlantic to Prokopi with a customs form reading: “pile of reptile bones worth $15,000”.
Tarbosaurus Bataar

What’s driving this market?

Dinosaur remains have been precious objects for centuries – long before people had any idea what they were. In China, the world’s richest source of dinosaur bones in the last 20 years, the prehistoric teeth and strange skulls that turned up in farmers’ fields were thought to be from dragons that had fallen from the sky and were often ground up for medical remedies. The modern trade in dinosaur bones began in the 19th century – a boom then given new life by Steven Spielberg’s film, Jurassic Park, in the 1990’s. Celebrity dinosaur collectors include Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage, although, as John Miller, a former FBI assistant director says, many private buyers are simply “wealthy people who want something really interesting [to] put under their key light in their basement for their 70 dinner guests”.

What’s wrong with that?

Governments argue that dinosaurs found in their territory are part of their museums national heritage and belong in museums. Mongolia’s Nemegt Basin, for example, is the only place on Earth where pieces of Tarbosaurus skeleton have been found in great numbers (the government is awaiting the return of three, which it hopes to display to the public). 

Just as importantly, palaeontologists despair of the way that commercial diggers – often local farmers, hoping for a Jurassic jackpot – brutally excavate fossil remains, focusing simply on relics they know they can sell. T. Rex teeth can fetch $1000 an inch; a triceratops skeleton sold for $944,167 in Paris 2008.

Is commercial digging really so bad?

People involved in the trade of fossils and dinosaurs argue that market forces encourage more fossils to be found. There simply aren’t enough trained palaeontologists, they say, to comb the Earth for clues of ancient life. So, as well as making money, they bring scientifically important specimens to life.

What’s the counter-argument?

Palaeontologists point out that fossils and bones dug up for profit are almost always stripped of vital information about the place of their discovery. Location and geology can provide researchers with vital clues about how and when the dinosaur might have died. “A dinosaur out of context is like a character without a story. Worse than that, the character suffers from amnesia,” says Jake Horner, a leading American palaeontologist. In most notorious cases, commercial dinosaur dealers have stitched together multiple skeletons – Prokopi’s Tarbosaurus was, in fact, several – and even made up of entire species.

Why isn’t the trade outlawed?

This is the dilemma for palaeontologists and, particularly, museums. “The barter, sale, or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned,” say the by-laws of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology, “unless it brings them into or keeps them within public trust.” And indeed, museums have been the main customers of the dinosaur trade for the last 150 years – which is why they stand accused of both driving and complaining about the market at the same time. In 1997, with the help of Disney and McDonald’s, The Field Museum in Chicago paid $8.3 million for a T.Rex skeleton called “Sue” – incentivising untrained fossil diggers the world over. In 2006, Oslo’s Natural History Museum reportedly paid $750,000 for a fossil of the primate species Darwinius, known as “Ida”, which was presented to the world as the missing link in human evolution in 2009.

So is there anything that can be done about it?

Some scientists argue that all sales of fossils should be banned, but others fear this would make it harder to keep tabs on the culprits. That, indeed, is what Prokopi argued: that the first wish of commercial palaeontologists was to sell to museums and researchers, and that the efforts of the Mongolian authorities to halt the sale of his looted Tarbosaurus would “only drive the black market deeper underground”. A possible comprise – proposed by palaeontology writer Brian Switek in Slate magazine – might be to attempt a form of regulation, under which commercial dealers would be paid a small finder’s fee by museums and retain the right to make casts of their discoveries. But, as Switek admits, “this would require private landowners and commercial collectors to stop seeing dollar signs made out of dinosaur bones”.


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