Tyrannosaurus Bataar Fossil Finally Returns Home To Mongolia
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Nearly a year after a dinosaur fossil was first reported stolen from Mongolia it is finally being returned to its rightful owner. US authorities in New York have returned the remains of the 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar to the Mongolian government.
The skeleton, which was looted from the Gobi Desert, was illegally smuggled into the US by Eric Prokopi, who later sold the fossil at an auction in NYC for a cool $1.1 million. Shortly after the sale the skeleton was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents after word broke that the dinosaur may have been stolen.
Authorities said Prokopi had in the past traded both whole and partial dinosaur skeletons out of his Florida home. With the T. bataar skeleton, they said Prokopi brought the fossil home to the US in pieces and reconstructed it into a nearly complete skeleton.
Government officials said the fossil was initially labeled by Prokopi as reptile bones from Great Britain. After a raid on his home, investigators uncovered 400 pounds of dinosaur fossils. He later pleaded guilty to charges related to fossil smuggling, according to CBS 2´s Dana Tyler.
ICE Director John Morton told CBS This Morning that the fossils were smuggled into the country under false pretenses. “This was a very large dinosaur. Hundreds of bones had to be brought in actually from the rock in which it was dug up in the Gobi Desert and then ultimately assembled here in New York.”
Under Mongolian law, any fossils found in the country belong to Mongolia and its people.
“We are very pleased to have played a pivotal role in returning Mongolia´s million dollar baby,” US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. “Of course, that million dollar price tag, as high as it is, doesn´t begin to describe the true value of an ancient artifact that is part of the fabric of a country´s natural history and cultural heritage — priceless.”
Tsakhia Elbegdorj, the President of Mongolia, thanked US officials for their efforts in bringing T. bataar home to its rightful owners. “Our two countries are separated by many miles, but share a passion for justice and a commitment to putting an end to illegal smuggling,” he said in a statement.
Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, Mongolia´s minister of culture, sport and tourism, added that the recovery is an important milestone for her country. “It´s a piece of world history in these bones,” she said.
After the sale of the dinosaur was nixed last June, the Mongolian government requested the fossil be returned. Experts believe the fossil was unearthed in the Gobi Desert sometime between 1995 and 2005. The bones´ coloring made determining their origin relatively easy. They were grayish in color as opposed to dark brown or black, which is found in most North American dinosaur fossils. Besides the coloration, paleontologists also attributed the fossils to Mongolia based on the fact that no T. bataar fossil has ever been found anywhere else, reported Tina Susman of the LA Times.
“We never had dinosaurs’ museum before, so we’ll set up for the first time a new museum called Central Dinosaur Museum of Mongolia. T bataar is going to be the first item, first exhibit of the museum,” said Tsedevdamba.
She said this was the first cultural repatriation ever to Mongolia.
As for Prokopi, he now faces up to 17 years in prison for smuggling and sale of the fossil. He also faces a $250,000 fine. He is expected to be sentenced on August 30.
Besides the returned Mongolian fossil, Prokopi has also been accused of smuggling a second T. bataar skeleton, two Saurolophus skeletons and two Oviraptor skeletons from the country. He has also been accused of smuggling a Microraptor skeleton from China.