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The Bone Thieves
  • May 19, 2013 : 07:05
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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 everything. 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 immovable 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.

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read more: News, travel, issue june 2013

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