Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fossil of a 70-million-year-old ‘Terror Lizard’ goes back to Mongolia

A fossil of one of the most fearsome predators to have stalked the earth is being returned to Mongolia after it was located in Britain as part of an investigation into dinosaur smuggling, The Independent can reveal.

The intact skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar, a close relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, was recovered by American officials during an international investigation which this week led to the jailing of a Virginia-based palaeontologist described as a “one-man black market in prehistoric fossils”.

Eric Prokopi, 39, was sentenced to three months' imprisonment for smuggling fossils despite subsequently helping to locate 18 dinosaur fossils alleged to have been illegally exported from Mongolia. Prosecutors said that the father-of-two had recovered so many near-complete dinosaurs that the Mongolians are opening a museum in their capital to house them.

Among the exhibits in Ulan Bator's new museum is likely to be the Tarbosaurus skeleton recovered from an undisclosed location in the UK after Prokopi used Britain as a staging post for fossils illegally exported from Mongolia's Gobi Desert between 2010 and 2012.

A source familiar with the case told The Independent: “The Tarbosaurus that was in the UK has been sent back to the US. We're just awaiting some administrative details before it gets returned back to Mongolia.”

The return of the 70-million-year-old dinosaur, which would have measured up to 12m long and whose name roughly translates to “Terror Lizard”, is part of the conclusion of a criminal case which began amid chaotic scenes at a New York auction house in 2012.

A separate Tarbosaurus skeleton which Prokopi, a “commercial paleontologist” specialising in preparing fossil specimens for sale, had spent months preparing at his then Florida home was sold for $1m (£620,000) despite the efforts of lawyers on the auction room floor representing the Mongolian authorities to halt the bidding. Under Mongolian law, all dinosaur remains are state property and cannot be exported, although the rule has been widely flouted for decades.

In this case though, the high-profile sale of a “Terror Lizard” (a species unique to the Gobi Desert) prompted the Mongolians to obtain an order postponing the sale and US authorities moved in to seize the skeleton and arrest Prokopi, who eventually pleaded guilty last year to three fraud and conspiracy charges.

Documents submitted to the Manhattan court alleged that some of the bones for the seized Tarbosaurus, including its skull with 64 flesh-shredding teeth, were contained in three crates of fossils (weighing 1.3 tonnes) despatched to Prokopi by Chris Moore, a British collector based on Dorset's famous Jurassic Coast.

Mr Moore is not accused of any wrongdoing in connection with the case. But Prokopi admitted he had imported fossils with “vague” labels which disguised the true origin of the dinosaur bones by describing their country of origin as Japan or the UK.

The rewards from the illicit dinosaur trade for Prokopi, who was alleged to have visited the Gobi Desert at least three times in the last decade to look for fossils, were substantial. He expected to make around $300,000 (£179,000) from the sale of the Tarbosaurus and had built up a lucrative business selling items from dinosaur ribs to fossilised sloth claws.

As Prokopi put it: “I sincerely love fossils.”

But by misrepresenting the origins of Mongolian and Chinese dinosaurs, including two Saurolophus skeletons and two Oviraptor skeletons, Prokopi was tapping into a worldwide black market in coveted fossil remains which paleontologists complain sees fragile sites frequently raided by unscrupulous collectors.

Speaking at his sentencing on Tuesday, Prokopi said: “What I did was wrong , and I failed to appreciate the gravity of what I have done.”

The court heard that the collector had paid a heavy price for his criminality with the break-up of his marriage , the loss of his home and a toxic reputation which now sees him largely spurned by other fossil professionals.

Judge Alvin Hellerstein said that a prison term was necessary to send out a message to others in the world of commercial paleontology, adding: “He is clearly not a bad person, but he has done a bad thing.”

Investigators acknowledged, however, that Prokopi had made significant efforts to make amends for his crime by helping to recover the 18 skeletons, including, it is understood, the Tarbosaurus returned from Britain.

Martin Bell, an assistant US Attorney, said information provided by the disgraced dealer had helped three other ongoing investigations into the international fossil trade and admitted the authorities had been blind to a “black market in stolen national treasures that operated in plain sight”.

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