New Scientist

Save the Dinosaurs

Mongolia was a fossil poacher’s paradise until she stepped in.

Tyrannosaurus bataar, a 70-million-year-old dinosaur, goes on display in Ulan Bator, June 8, 2013.

Tyrannosaurus bataar, a 70-million-year-old dinosaur, goes on display in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, in 2013.

Photo by Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir/AFP/Getty Images

Oyungerel Tsedevdamba is minister of culture, sports, and tourism for Mongolia. She is also president of the Democratic Women’s Union of Mongolia and an adviser on human rights to Mongolian president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. She has studied at Stanford University and at Yale University. Though illegal for more than a century, looting Mongolian dinosaur fossils was commonplace—until Tsedevdamba stepped in.

You were trained in public policy. What got you interested in dinosaurs?
In 2006 I was driving in the Mongolian countryside with my family. I stopped to take a photograph of camels in the sunshine, and talked with tourists who were also taking pictures. One was from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and he invited us to come for a back-room tour.


A few months later I began a program at Yale University, near New York, and got to take that tour. On it, I asked about the Mongolian dinosaurs I saw. The guide said they were Mongolian property and would be returned if we had a dinosaur museum. I knew little about paleontology, but I wondered why we never had a museum if we had so many dinosaurs.


Did you end up looking into it?
Not for some time. On a trip to Chicago in 2010 I met a Mongolian paleontologist named Bolortsetseg Minjin, who told me she wanted Mongolians to learn about paleontology so they would stop stealing their own dinosaurs.

I asked what I could do to help. She gave me books about illegal fossil hunters and paleontology expeditions to Mongolia—as well as lots of Web links to read. And she asked me to write an article that would change Mongolians’ attitudes toward dinosaurs.


Did you write that article?
Eventually. At the time, I read the books. But soon after I was granted an Eisenhower fellowship—for people in international leadership roles to study in the United States. I told the committee that I wanted to study dinosaurs and fossil management. When they asked why, I said I wanted to bring dinosaurs home. Mongolia was—and is—having a mining boom, so we needed to know more about preserving paleontology sites.

On my fellowship I visited Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, where I met chief park paleontologist Dan Chure. He told me why there was so much that Mongolians needed to learn and do, and explained how smuggling was becoming a big problem. That’s how it struck me that I must do something. In March 2012, I finally wrote that article.


What was the piece about?
I wrote it from the point of view of a dinosaur. I introduced myself as Tarbosaurus bataar, a dinosaur similar to Tyrannosaurus rex, that once lived in Mongolia. “I am supposed to be a superstar,” I wrote, “but I am nobody because nobody knows me.” I also wrote about other dinosaurs that could be heroes for Mongolia, if only we cared about them. A Mongolian newspaper published the article in May 2012.

Did your writing spur further action?
The very morning after it was published I was having breakfast when my husband came in and said, “You have to see what is on my computer. It is important.” Then he showed me an article saying that somebody was about to auction a 70-million-year-old Tarbosaurus bataar fossil in New York.


I thought, this is the case that can save Mongolian dinosaurs. But it was Friday, and the auction was scheduled for Sunday.

With so little time to act, what did you do?
I couldn’t get in touch with the minister of education, who is responsible for dinosaurs. So I called the president, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. At first he said, “What dinosaur are you talking about? Why are you calling me?” I begged him to give me just 30 minutes to explain. Finally he told me to come to his office. I brought all of my dinosaur books and papers, put them on the table, and referenced them as I explained how, even with my limited knowledge, I knew this was a Mongolian dinosaur—and that it was state property that he should claim.


He asked what would happen if it didn’t work. I told him, “Then you will be the first president who ever claimed a dinosaur. But if you succeed, you will be the first president who ever succeeded in claiming a dinosaur.” He decided to go ahead.

Once you convinced the president, were you able to stop the auction?
I found a U.S. lawyer who got an injunction to stop the sale. The auction went ahead, but the sale, for just over $1 million, was later voided. The dealer, Eric Prokopi, eventually pleaded guilty to lying on U.S. customs forms. And when federal officers raided his premises, they found many other Mongolian fossils.

How were dealers able to steal so many fossils?
I wondered that as well—how someone could boldly take fossils from Mongolia without anyone noticing. Then I read Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs, a book written in 1996 by the paleontologist Michael Novacek of the AMNH. In it he described his expeditions in Mongolia, as well as his concerns about how easily people could take advantage of Mongolians.


He also wrote about where he found Tarbosaurus bataar, oviraptors and other dinosaurs—meticulously describing not only what he found, but what he left behind and its location. It wasn’t his intention, but I saw how his book could be used as a handbook for smuggling: The very things he mentioned were found and sold by Prokopi. The years from 2000 to 2012 were a big smuggling time in Mongolia.


Why does Mongolia have so many dinosaur fossils—and what makes them unique?
Dinosaurs lived in many places, but in dry areas like the Mongolian Gobi desert, the fossils remain very well preserved. This means they reveal many details about the creatures and the ancient world—fragile connections in the skull and the stomach, skeletons with every single bone, even baby dinosaurs in the egg nest. This type of preservation makes them invaluable to science.


Has the experience with theft influenced the way Mongolia now protects these fossils?
The tide has turned. Our police and people know much more about dinosaurs since the Tarbosaurus case, and we are in better control. We’ve also found that educating people about science is a great tool to stop fossil theft. Mongolians are fascinated by paleontology now, and are much more serious about their resources than they were two years ago.

But I still really want to tell researchers who visit other countries looking for fossils: Please do not describe what you leave behind.

What happened to the Tarbosaurus skeleton?
It came home to Mongolia, and it is now housed in what used to be the Lenin museum. We finally got the building back this June, and the hall where Tarbosaurus bataar is on display is now open to the public.


What other fossils are you recovering?
Prokopi’s other fossils are being packed in New York to be shipped back. Two dinosaur eggs and the head and feet of a Deinocheirus were recently donated to our museum as well.

We also wrote to the AMNH asking them to return some materials gathered by American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews during his Mongolian expeditions between 1922 and 1925. Nothing has been returned yet, but we hope to have the fossils on display by the 100th anniversary of his expeditions.

Meanwhile, many Mongolian dinosaurs are being studied around the world under research contracts. Now, once the research has finished, they will come back to Mongolia.