Bone smugglers: US returns stolen dinosaur fossils to Mongolia, again

The US has returned another batch of stolen dinosaur fossils to Mongolia. Fossil smuggling is a widespread problem, especially in the US.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement
A dinosaur skull returned to Mongolia. The returned pieces include nearly complete skeletons of Bactrosaurus, Protoceratops and Psittcosaurus, a nest of Protoceratops eggs, and the skulls of an Alioramus and a Psittcosaurus.

Tracking down stolen dinosaur bones may not sound like part of Homeland Security's mandate, but that's exactly what the agency just did, and not for the first time.

On Tuesday, the US returned a series of dinosaur fossil remains to Mongolia. The fossils were smuggled out of the Asian country and into the US where they were impounded by federal agents in New York and Utah.

The return was orchestrated by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which has some experience with ancient bones.

"Fossil poaching is a huge problem worldwide…," Dr. Darla Zelenitsky, a paleontologist with the Univeristy of Calgary, who assisted the FBI in a 2006 smuggling case, said in a university press release. "A lot of fossils go to the United States and are sold illegally."

The legality of digging up dinosaur bones and selling them depends on where it's done. The US allows digging up and selling fossils on private property. In contrast, Mongolia has patrimony laws in place that classify fossils as property of the state, making them illegal to export or privately own, according to the ICE press release.

But illegal exportation has long been a problem for Mongolia, which is home to some of the world's largest fossil sites. 

Mongolian fossil smuggling first gained attention in 2012 after a smuggler named Eric Prokopi was arrested and had his home raided by federal agents. Among the recovered artifacts were the bones of a Tarbosaurus bataar, a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, that was unearthed in the Gobi Desert.

The New Yorker’s Paige Williams reported in 2014 that Mr. Prokopi’s arrest revealed a web of illegal dinosaur sales.

Facing a possible seventeen years in prison, Prokopi started talking. In the seventeen months since he pleaded guilty, he has helped to widen the U.S. investigation into fossil smuggling, providing details about specific specimens, dates, and locations.

But even prior to Prokopi's confession, federal agents had struggled with the fossil smuggling for years, sending back stolen fossils to a range of countries far beyond just Mongolia. 

In 2006, the FBI recruited Dr. Zelenitsky to help crack a case involving fossilized dinosaur eggs thought to have been smuggled from abroad. The scientist was able to determine they originated in Argentina.

In addition to depriving countries of their natural heritage, fossil smuggling can obscure the paleontological record. Poachers "just go in and take teeth or claws off and hack the skeletons apart, and then the teeth or claws get sold," Zelenitsky said in an interview with the Calgary Herald. 

But despite best efforts, difficulty in regulating and confirming where fossils were originally found has led to illicit sales even from reputable vendors.

In 2015, movie star Nicolas Cage was forced to return a 32-inch dinosaur skull he purchased at an Los Angeles-based auction house to Mongolia. Publicist Alex Schack confirmed to the Associated Press that the purchase included a certificate of authenticity that placed the fossil’s origin in a legal country.

Since 2007, the HSI alone has repatriated a 8,000 items, including fossils, to more than 30 countries, according to the agency.

The recently returned haul of fossils included skeletons of Bactrosaurus, Protoceratops, and Psittcosaurus. A new of Protoceratops eggs and two skulls belonging to an Alioramus and a Psittcosaurus were also returned.

"We are proud of our role in restoring this rich paleontological heritage to the Mongolian people and taking these cultural treasures from the hands of looters and smugglers," said US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Robert Capers at the ceremony.

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