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The Bone Thieves
  • May 19, 2013 : 07:05
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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 conversation. 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 sometimes 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 fabric. 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 hallways 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 before 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 somewhat 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 below 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.

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read more: News, travel, issue june 2013

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