Meet the Woman Who Saved Mongolia’s Dinosaurs From Smugglers

Tyrannosaurus bataar, a 70-million-year-old dinosaur, Ulan Bator, Mongolia, (2013). Photo: Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir, courtesy AFP/Getty Images.
Tyrannosaurus bataar, a 70-million-year-old dinosaur, Ulan Bator, Mongolia, (2013). Photo: Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir, courtesy AFP/Getty Images.

Though Mongolia has long struggled to curtail the looting of dinosaur fossils, one woman, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, the country’s minister of culture, sports, and tourism, is making significant headway in the battle against their illegal export and sale. In an interview with Slate, she outlined some of the challenges she’s faced.

The dry environment of Mongolia’s Gobi desert has proven ideal for the preservation of dinosaur fossils, but, until recently, there has been very little oversight of excavations. “The years from 2000 to 2012 were a big smuggling time in Mongolia,” Tsedevdamba told Slate.

Though she is by no means a paleontologist, Tsedevdamba gradually educated herself on the matter after a 2006 visit to New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). When she realized the extent of the smuggling problem, she vowed to help.

A key turning point came in 2012, when Tsedevdamba enlisted Mongolia’s president, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, to help block the New York auction of a 70-million-year-old Mongolian Tarbosaurus bataar fossil similar to a Tyrannosaurus rex. They filed an injunction to block the $1 million sale, which was later voided. The dealer, Eric Prokopi, was found in possession of other stolen Mongolian fossils.

“Educating people about science is a great tool to stop fossil theft,” says Tsedevdamba. “Mongolians are fascinated by paleontology now, and are much more serious about their resources than they were two years ago.”

Mongolia is working to regain other fossils, and is particularly interested in American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews’s findings from his 1922–25 Mongolian expeditions, which are at the AMNH. “We hope to have the fossils on display by the 100th anniversary of his expeditions,” says Tsedevdamba.

As for the Tarbosaurus, it finally went on display this year at Ulan Bator’s Central Dinosaur Museum (formerly the Vladimir Lenin Museum).


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