The Bone Thieves
A high-quality fossil from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert can fetch six, even seven figures. There’s only one problem: it’s illegal to take it out of the country. Adventures in the plant’s hottest prehistoric black market
Chinzo filtered through the maze, and I followed. Mongolia in December was minus 32 degrees Fahrenheit, Ulaanbaatar the coldest capital in the world. My local fixer, Chinzo, a slender self-taught man of many languages, knew his way around the Narantuul Market. The place had the look of the illicit, a rambling frontier bazaar of Russian and Chinese attitudes and goods. We skated the market’s icy pathways, past vendors wrapped in furs and wearing felt boots. They sold bear claws, medicinal narcotics, ammo, magenta brassieres, the heads of vultures. My breath crystallized on the black fur of my collar, turning it gray. People barged around, shoving one another in that desperately Asian manner. This hinted at the rise of the illegal trade in dinosaur fossils, the frantic irresistibility of the treasure clasped in Mongolian soil.
I trailed Chinzo to a stall behind a rusted fuel truck, where the mass thinned out. He traded whispers with a man counting a stack of tugriks, the local currency. Pewter camel miniatures were marshaled on the stall’s table, mixed with Soviet military medals and metal swastikas. A sharp wind picked up and sliced through the stalls. The vendor looked Chinzo in the eye, explaining that the criminal case in New York had changed every- thing. A man was on trial and facing 17 years in prison for smuggling dinosaur bones from Mongolia. Now here we were, hunting for bones ourselves. But the fossil dealers were spooked. The black market had gone further underground.
If we were serious about buying dinosaur fossils, the man said, we should go to the Gobi Desert, along the Chinese border. That was where the action was.
The man gave Chinzo a phone number, saying we could give it a try in the meantime. Chinzo dialed. “I have a skull,” the man on the line told him. “I can’t show you right now. Let’s meet tomorrow. I’m in the middle of a poker game.” There was something to buy.
I HAD COME TO Mongolia for the same reason most outsiders do: adventure. The world’s largest virgin coal deposit and the biggest untapped copper and gold mines are found here, in the Gobi Desert. But I was no miner. What interested me was the Gobi’s other natural resource—one of the richest dinosaur fossil beds in the world. It is illegal to export these bones, but some who have done so have sold them for six, even seven figures. I posed as a buyer, telling people I planned to smuggle the fossils by rail over the northern border, where my Russian clients waited.
Since the fall of Genghis Khan’s empire in the 14th century, Mongolia has assumed the role of cautious survivor. The country is fastened between two im- movable powers—Russia and China— with no access to the sea. In the 20th century the Soviets acted as Mongolia’s patron against Chinese intervention. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Russians fled Ulaanbaatar, fomenting chaos. Mongolia free-fell into poverty. Only now, as the country prepares for a boom in natural resources, is Mongolia ready to join the economies of the world.
For decades, however, the nomadic herders living in the Gobi Desert have known of the treasure buried in their midst, embodying the hope of a better life. A single discovery of the right sort of dinosaur bones can turn a man’s fortunes forever.
The presence of this prehistoric material came to light in the 1920s, thanks to an American scientist named Roy Chapman Andrews. Some claim Andrews was the inspiration for Indiana Jones. A dashing adventurer and an early director of the American Museum of Natural History, Andrews was instrumental in the development of paleontology. When he first ventured to Mongolia, Central Asia was nearly as difficult to reach as the North Pole. In 1922 he came upon a large U- shaped cliff formation in the Gobi Desert. This area would become one of paleontology’s most significant sites.
“Everyone was enthusiastic over the beauty of the great flat-topped mesa on the border of the badlands basin,” Andrews later wrote. “The spot was almost paved with bones and all represented animals which were unknown to any of us.... The great basin with its beautiful sculptured ramparts would prove the most important locality in the world from a paleontological standpoint. We named the spot the Flaming Cliffs.”
During five expeditions to the Gobi Desert, Andrews and his team discovered several new species of dinosaur, including protoceratops, oviraptor and velociraptor. At the Flaming Cliffs he became the first to discover a dinosaur egg.
Communism enveloped Mongolia in 1924, shutting off the Gobi to outsiders. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, after the country shifted to democracy, that Western paleontologists returned. Drawn by the Gobi’s rich bed of dinosaur fossils, these scientists hired locals as drivers, porters, diggers and spotters.
While the scientists encountered one fossil and then another, their Mongolian helpers watched, learning several valuable lessons: how to locate and recognize dinosaur fossils, how to extract them from the ground and, most important, how to craft friendships with foreigners. Outsiders with deep pockets, not scientists but poachers, were hanging around the edges. The international trade in Mongolian fossils, a black market, became one of paleontology’s open secrets.
I had come thousands of miles to explore this black market myself.
“COME DOWNSTAIRS,” Chinzo said over the phone. It was past midnight. I left the apartment and walked outside. The only movement was the exhaust that billowed out of the Toyota SUV parked at the end of the lane. Behind the right-hand steering wheel an old man swung his head around to assess me as I slid into the backseat. He grimaced. The deep inlays of his face folded in on one another like a bellows.
This was the man we had phoned earlier. His poker game was over.
Chinzo sat next to me as the car passed silently through Ulaanbaatar’s sleeping hours. We drove along potholed roads, the smoke of coal fires curling beneath the streetlamps that guided us to the edge of town.
Already the day had been eventful. We met with one man behind a row of shops on Peace Avenue. Sitting in the back of Chinzo’s Land Cruiser, he pulled a tampon box out of his jacket. Reaching in, he produced an oblong object about eight inches long, reddish brown, lined and pebbled. He handed it to me. It was the egg of a theropod, a grouping of carnivorous dinosaurs. The egg weighed close to 10 pounds. I rolled it over in my palms. I knew from my research that it was at least 65 million years old, and here it was, still intact. “We’re looking for something big- ger,” Chinzo told the man.
Now we were in the Toyota, on the hunt for something bigger indeed. The driver approached a metal gate and honked the horn. A man with an alcohol-blurred face appeared through a door in the gate, his eyes squinting into our headlights. We passed through the opened gate and drove into a yard of industrial castoffs: a Kamaz truck on blocks, snow-dusted piles of metal scrap, a factory’s rusted furnace.
We got out of the car. The air was bitterly cold, to the point of distraction. The old man led us to a shipping container in a corner of the enclosure. He gripped a flashlight between his teeth, fumbling with the lock. Our footsteps echoed through the container’s metal interior, which was filled with boxes labeled in hanzi and Cyrillic.
Quickly the old man snatched a crow- bar. I realized the drunken man who had opened the gate now stood between us and the exit of the shipping container. The old man brandished the crowbar. I looked at Chinzo, but he betrayed nothing.
The old man turned away from us. He placed the crowbar’s pronged end into the lid of a crate. The box measured five feet long, three feet tall and two feet wide. He leveraged the crowbar, popping the lid off the crate.
In the flicker of his flashlight I saw that the crate was filled with sand. The old man began scraping away at the sand, spilling it onto the floor. Little by little a shape began to reveal itself. There was something there.
The old man gripped the object with two hands, straining with the effort required to raise it from the box. As the object caught the illumination from the flashlight, I saw what it was—a dinosaur skull.
The mandible was missing, as were the teeth, but the eye sockets and nasal cavities were evident. The skull was four feet long and two feet wide. The old man struggled to hold it. He propped the skull on a buck- et. As he did so, he chipped off a slice of bone, which clattered to the floor.
I looked over the specimen. I took a few measurements. “Twenty-five million tugriks,” the old man said, which was about $18,000. I balked. The old man’s voice echoed in the shipping container. So we wanted something bigger? He said he had a contact in the Gobi for us, near the Flaming Cliffs.
ERIC PROKOPI IS THE is the reason the dinosaur- fossil black market in Mongolia had gone underground. A world away from Ulaanbaatar and the Gobi, two days after Christ- mas in 2012, Prokopi entered Magistrate Court 5A in the U.S. District Courthouse on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. I watched him walk in that day. He had the deep tan of someone who lives in a tropical climate. He wore a black suit with a white shirt but no tie, as though the court didn’t deserve his spending any extra time in front of the mirror. It had inconvenienced him enough already. On October 17 police had arrested Pro- kopi at his home in Gainesville, Florida. He now faced 17 years in prison.
Prokopi described himself as a “commercial paleontologist.” He was not a scientist, and he had completed no formal training in the excavation and study of dinosaurs. Yet like others in what is occasionally called the dragon- bone trade, Prokopi traveled across the country and around the world, scouting for fossils that he could ship to his Florida home. There he would clean them, mount them on metal frames of his own construction and sell them on the growing fossil market, where the most attractive specimens could fetch millions of dollars.
That market is most vivid in Tucson, Arizona, 70 miles from the Mexican border, at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. The exhibition has been held every year since 1954. It assembles a comprehensive collection of diamonds, rocks and fossils, along with every manner of prospector, scavenger, scientist, smuggler and bone hunter ever to peek under a rock. Prokopi was a regular at the Tucson show. There he became acquainted with Mongolian fossils, mingling with those international bone hunters who openly dis- played their Gobi prizes for scientists, dealers and the scouts who worked for auction houses. Soon Prokopi began to appear in Tucson with Mongolian bones of his own.
Early last year Prokopi consigned a largely intact Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton to Heritage Auctions, a Dallas company that claimed to be the largest collectibles auctioneer in the world. Tyrannosaurus bataar, also known as the tarbosaurus, thrived in the final epoch of the dinosaurs, some 70 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period. Scientists consider the tarbosaurus the Asian cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex, nearly identical but for slight variations. Prokopi had connected with Heritage through David Herskowitz, a contact from the Tucson shows who was head of the auction house’s natural history division.
The Gobi Desert is the only place Tyrannosaurus bataar has ever been found. Head to tail, an adult measured up to 40 feet. It had as many as 64 teeth, some more than three inches long. It was the Gobi’s prime predator. A juvenile, Prokopi’s tarbosaurus measured eight feet tall, yet it was big enough to cause a stir. Any paleontologist could have told Heritage where Prokopi’s bones had come from; the company’s idle research into provenance revealed the corner cutting that has dogged the auction business for years.
“Prokopi had been a dealer for more than a decade, and he had a good reputation,” Greg Rohan, Heritage Auction’s president, told me. “He warranted in writing that he had clear title. He lied to us colossally, and now he’s paying for it.”
Prokopi’s tarbosaurus was set for auction in May 2012. Paleontologists have discovered only about 20 intact specimens of tarbosaurus, so its appearance in such a public sale woke the scientific community. Mark Norell, chairman of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, crafted an open letter denouncing the auction and e-mailed it to a lengthy list of influential contacts in science and the media.
In Ulaanbaatar, political leaders were taking steps of even greater import. An engaging academic with a Stanford degree, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba served as an advisor to the Mongolian president, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. When she learned of the proposed auction, Tsedevdamba phoned Elbegdorj. “Why are you calling me about dinosaurs?” the president asked. Tsedevdamba said it was a matter of Mongolian sovereignty. “Fossils are protected in the Mongolian constitution,” she argued. “It’s a piece of land, a piece of our territory. It belongs to us.”
Parliamentary elections were being held in 2012 in Mongolia, and Prokopi’s dinosaur could spark a debate on national identity, with Elbegdorj and his party at its center. Elbegdorj believed the time was right to take a symbolic, international stand.
The tarbosaurus sold at auction on May 20 in Manhattan for $1.05 million, to a New York real estate developer named Coleman Burke. But Burke never received it. Agents from the Department of Homeland Security impounded the skeleton, while American and Mongolian investigators began unraveling the path the tarbosaurus had taken from the Gobi to Gainesville.
Mongolian border- control documents confirmed that Prokopi had traveled to Mongolia in 2008, 2009 and 2011. The case’s lead investigator in Mongolia, Narankhuu T., told me Prokopi’s local partners had broken down the dinosaur into several boxes and trucked it to Ulaanbaatar, labeling the contents as minerals or salt. From there they likely shipped the boxes on commercial flights to Japan. A source in the U.S. Attorney’s Office told me Prokopi had partnered with British and Japanese dealers. They sent the tarbosaurus from Japan to England and then to the U.S., obfuscating its origin in a web of falsified shipping documents that took months to untangle.
Prokopi spent almost two years at his Gainesville home, cleaning and assembling the tarbosaurus bones into a standing skeleton. Five months after the Heritage auction, federal agents arrived at his home.
They arrested Prokopi on charges of conspiring to illegally import fossils, making false statements to customs officials and transporting illegal goods. At the time of his arrest, the U.S. Attorney’s Office characterized Prokopi as a “one-man black market in prehistoric fossils.” Typically, the government had either misunderstood the subject matter or overstated its case. The truth was the market in illegal Mongolian fossils involved scores of individuals like Prokopi, enabled by online sales out- lets, lax enforcement and the biggest auction houses in the world.
But it was Prokopi alone who was in jeopardy as the doors to Magistrate Court 5A opened. Lumbering toward the defendant’s table, he looked like he could use a drink. He looked like a fall guy.
I JUMPED ON a quick flight from Ulaanbaatar to Dalanzadgad, the biggest settlement in the Gobi Desert. About 20,000 people live here, caked in the dust of mine shafts and sandstorms.
Hanging around the café at the Khan Uul Hotel, I eyed three men at the next table. Their boots were covered in grit, their table strewn with empty beer bottles. It was possible they had spent the day digging for bones, and I listened in on their con- versation. Two were Australians, the other from England. The Englishman spoke up. “There are three things that are important in my life,” he said. He was drunk. His accent was heavy. “English foo-bawl. The law-a-ry. And smow-kin.” Too loud to be poachers, I thought. They must be miners.
My phone rang. It was Chinzo. I laid a few tugriks on the table. On the way to the door, I heard one of the Aussies say, “What about masturbating?”
Outside, the town of Dalanzadgad stank of exhaust. A thousand pipes, residential and commercial, reached into the sky, coughing clouds of black coal powder. Desert threatened on all sides of the settlement. Motorcycles were scattered around town, goatskin pulled over the handlebars to protect hands during winter riding. Hundreds of trucks carried thousands of tons of coal from here to China every day. Police sources had told me that dinosaur bones were some- times buried among the mass of black mineral. But where did the bones come from? And who could take us to find them?
Chinzo had arranged a ride out of the settlement and into the desert. The car was a UAZ 2206, a Russian approximation of the VW Microbus. The driver, Bold, was a chubby local guy in his 20s. An old woman joined us for the ride, along with a young married couple, the wife clutching a baby. Bold had difficulty starting the engine, but eventually we got moving. Through the back window, Dalanzadgad disappeared in the dust cloud kicked up by our tires.
Bold told us he had grown up in the Gobi, in a family of nomadic herders. “I see these guys looking for bones all the time,” he said. “There are local guys like me. But we don’t know how to get a really big dinosaur out of the ground.” He mentioned a local family. He said this family would phone people in Ulaanbaatar, former paleontologists or museum workers, people who possessed the expertise that would enable them to excavate a substantial fossil. “This family is very dangerous,” Bold said. “They’re organized crime. They have their hands in everything.”
There were no roads across the Gobi. There was nothing around us, only the open space of desert in winter. We passed between two cow skulls on the sand, the heads marking the way. The young mother unleashed her right breast and her baby began sucking from it. We drove for three hours.
At last we reached a ger, a traditional Mongolian tent, circular and made of felt. We entered through a small door. The family that lived here would put us up for the night. We sat down on the floor, near the camel-racing trophies on the dresser. It was getting late, time for bed. In the flickering candlelight the man of the house brought out a bedroll. He unrolled the fab- ric. Inside were several thick, heavy dinosaur fossils, the bones of a tall vertebrate.
We were looking for something bigger, Chinzo told the man. “A carnivore.” The man shook his head. He couldn’t help us. I lay down beneath a camel blanket and blew out the candle, hoping for better luck tomorrow.
IN THE SOUTHEASTERN turret of the American Museum of Natural History, on New York’s Upper West Side, Mark Norell began his workday. The chairman of paleontology at the museum and one of the most important figures in the field, Norell was instrumental in reopening Mongolia for study in 1990. In the Gobi he found the first theropod embryo and has contributed to the discovery of feathered dinosaurs. Norell gives the impression that he is constantly on the move, whether to lecture in Shanghai or to drain a pint at the dive around the corner. Dignified and lettered, he resides at the far end of the dinosaur- hunter scale from Eric Prokopi, and he regards the Gobi as a special dominion.
“We used to find skulls sticking out of the ground there,” he told me in his office, not long before I departed for the Gobi. “Not anymore. Nearly every fragment has been picked up off the ground. It’s been hammered by looters the past six, seven years. I’ve seen holes crudely dug into mountains. I’ve seen sites that have been dynamited. We’ve found detonators and wires on the ground.”
Skeptical, I asked Norell why any of this mattered—why paleontologists should have exclusive rights to bones that belong to Earth’s prehistory. This kind of poaching didn’t harm anyone. It didn’t even harm the animals; they were long dead. What did we lose when a poacher ripped a fossil from the ground?
Norell catalogued the many pieces of data that a paleontologist collects at a site, including soil samples, geological info, geochemical analyses, pollen data. “These rogues destroy the site and its context,” he said. “They’re not interested in scientific value. They’re interested only in aesthetic value.” Lost is information about the evolutionary tract of a fossil, an understanding of pathology and disease, a snapshot of the life of an animal. You are left with a curiosity, a wall hanging, an amulet.
Norell had been instrumental in bringing Prokopi’s activities to light. I was surprised, then, when he pulled out several drawers in his office and told me the origin of the fossils lying there. “These are Mongolian,” he said. “Some of them have been here since Roy Chapman Andrews.”
The line between paleontology and poaching is visible only to the expert. To the rest of us it all looks like the same bunch of bones. According to Norell, poaching is so widely accepted and policing so lax that even serious collectors are often unaware of what they’re buying. “A guy came in and wanted to donate his collection,” he said. “He had spent hundreds of thousands on it. I looked at it and told him, ‘It’s illegal. I can’t even have it on the premises.’ He said, ‘But I bought it at Tucson.’”
Norell walked me down the back hall- ways of the museum, a musty warren of interlocking corridors. We passed into his lab, the inner workings of the world’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils. Several assistants hovered over a delicate collection of fossils encased in plaster. It looked like a jumble of bones extracted from a clothes drier. “This was an entire group taken out by a collapsing sand dune,” Norell said. “I’ve seen fossils from this find in Tucson.”
He led me through a doorway and into the public section of the museum. We walked behind a man leading two small children into the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. The kids stopped and gaped, as did I, at the Tyrannosaurus rex in the middle of the room, a massive beast. Norell pointed out a nest of oviraptor eggs in a nearby display case. It is one of the first dinosaur nests ever discovered, found by Andrews in the Gobi in 1923.
“Many of these are Mongolian,” Norell said, gesturing around the room at various specimens. “Roy Chapman Andrews collected these back in the 1920s. They formed the basis of the museum’s collection.” I thought of the Flaming Cliffs and what the deposit must have looked like be- fore poachers picked it clean.
IT WAS DAYLIGHT when Bold picked us up at the ger. A friend of his, Jamyan, was sitting in the car. Fifteen minutes into our drive, the car’s engine stalled. We rolled to a stop. Bold said we were close enough to walk the rest of the way.
We walked for a while across the Gobi’s red-brown sands, Bold and Jamyan leading the way. It was a clear, sunny, cold day. We stopped in front of a pile of stones. Jamyan carefully moved each rock. I noticed a white object protruding from the surface. It was a skull, cracked and some- what crumpled. The body, if there was one, lay buried beneath the surface.
Bold knelt by the skull. He picked up what looked like a bone fragment and placed it on his tongue. Jamyan explained that this was a test. If the bone stuck to your tongue, that meant it was a dinosaur fossil. If the bone did not stick to your tongue, that meant it was the bone of an animal that still roamed the land. The fragment stuck to Bold’s tongue.
Using small twigs, the two men began to dig around the skull, blowing away the sand as they progressed. “I heard you can sell one for 20 million tugriks,” Bold said. That was about $14,000. “I want to buy a car.” The two worked at the skull, removing dirt with the twigs and their fingernails. Dust flew into my eye, and I stepped aside to blink it away. When my vision cleared, I noticed we were enclosed in a U-shaped collection of cliffs. We stood in the undulating valley be- low them. I had been so engrossed with the fossil in the ground I hadn’t realized where we were. It dawned on me only then that we were standing at the Flaming Cliffs.
I looked back at the fossil. It was evident that Bold and Jamyan didn’t possess the tools or the knowledge to remove it from the earth. Without assistance they would end up only destroying the fossil. Bold knew it too. Frustrated, he gave up. He rolled over onto his back.
He yelled up at the sky, “I want a new car!”
I took in my surroundings, where Andrews had been, where Norell had been and where Prokopi had also been. I realized my focus had been narrow. Now I could see the Flaming Cliffs, what they must have been for Andrews and for Tyrannosaurus bataar. I realized then that my search was over. It had led me to this place, where it was the time of dinosaurs in the time of man, the Flaming Cliffs witness to it all.