Dulamsuren Ganbaatar tucks her red hair behind her ear and thinks before answering my question: should criminals who smuggle fossils and dinosaur bones out of Mongolia receive tougher punishments?
The Paleontology, Archeology Museums Reform Project reform affairs officer admits it’s frustrating when people can’t be punished for what they have done but won’t say anymore.
She shrugs and smiles.
“Maybe they should pay for the logistics in finding them,” she finally says.
I’ve come to the 10th floor of the Central Cultural Palace next to Chinggis Square to find out about fossil smuggling.
Last month three men were charged with illegal possession of dinosaur bones in 11th khoroo of Khan-Uul District.
On January 17, police searched a jeep and found a full skeleton and skull of a Protoceratops and a skeleton of a Hadrosaurus, commonly known as the “duck-billed dinosaur”.
Some of the bones had been damaged as the men, who had obtained the fossils through illegal excavations, did not use proper methods to get them out of the ground and transport them.
The finds date back to around 84 million years ago.
If found guilty, the men could be charged a fine of 200 to 250 times the minimum monthly wage of Mongolia. The State Investigation Department is still working on the case.
In another, rather more famous case, actor Nicholas Cage also recently made headlines around the world for being in possession of a stolen dinosaur Tyrannosaurus Bataar skull. He has since promised to return the fossil to Mongolia.
I want to find out what the government is doing to protect its cultural heritage from being illegally dug up and sold to private collectors.
Smuggling has been an ongoing problem for years and is one that is difficult to stop. Many skeletons are buried in the Gobi, which can be hard to police.
That Mongolia was losing so much of its fossil heritage was bought to worldwide attention in 2012.
A skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Bataar was due to be auctioned in New York but an expert, realizing what it was and where it had come from, wrote a letter to stop the sale.
It went ahead anyway and was sold for more than one million USD. But a year later, it was returned to Mongolia where it went on display at the then newly opened, state run Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs in Ulaanbaatar.
“That was a big victory,” says G.Dulamsuren. “And after that is when everything started really.”
America and Mongolia now work closely to find where stolen fossils are from and to try and send them back home.
Several more fossils are expected to be repatriated back to Mongolia later this year, on April 5.
A new online database will also launch this year to make it easier to determine where fossils are in the world.
“This will be connected with customs,” she said. “Then we will do a training with customs officials and it will raise their awareness of fossils and what they should be looking for. Hopefully, it will reduce the smuggling.”
I asked why it was so easy to steal fossils in the first place.
G.Dulamsuren said, “Protecting fossil sites in the country is a very big problem and it has always been a problem. Some countries maybe use helicopters and look for sites but Mongolia can’t do that. So we are still working on that.
“Mongolian courts, legal and police organizations must stop smugglers in Mongolia. One example is the Bataar that was stolen, there could be a group of people working together but the main criminal is dead and so there is no one else to punish.
“But who knows if others – who weren’t punished – are still smuggling? If they stopped those smugglers, things like the recent thefts in Khan-Uul would not have happened.
“Smuggling also destroys fossil sites. It causes trouble for paleontologists and ruins fossil sites. It is not good for paleontology.”
G.Dulamsuren told the UB Post that Mongolia is famous for dinosaurs from the cretaceous period, which was around 70 to 80 million years ago. She said the climate was “hot and arid” but with streams as well.
She added that so many are still in the ground today thanks to the nation’s ancient customs and traditions.
G.Dulamsuren said, “Ancient Mongolians thought that dinosaurs were like ancient dragons and it was forbidden to touch them and to even go close to them, so maybe that helped to stop people excavating them.
“But after democracy, many more people started to dig and smuggle. And the sand in the Gobi makes it easy for them to take them out of the ground. In Mongolia, they are usually found complete.”
New legislation was introduced last year tightening up the rules on smuggling. They are due to come into force this month and I ask if she thinks they will make much of a difference.
“I think it will make a lot of difference because there will be tougher controls,” G.Dulamsuren said.
“Last year, we renewed the Cultural Heritage Protection Law and we added a lot of paleontology clauses. We added new rules about border crossings and how customs needs to work, so we are remaking the rules.
“Some rules are already law, and this month, the regulations about fossils crossing the border will be confirmed by government.
“English translations of these new laws will also be sent to America and other countries who have permits to dig, so all of them must follow the law and the rules.”
Rules and regulations about who can borrow fossils and for how long have also been tightened up.
“Little by little everything is developing,” she tails off.
The office we are sitting in has gold painted walls and piles of paper on the tables from a recent relocation. On her desk stands a small model of a dinosaur embryo in the half shell of an egg.
The real version will be one of the exhibits for the museum’s next exhibition due to take place around the beginning of April.
“Lots of children visit the museum,” she said. “And they keep asking if there will be more dinosaurs. So of course, we said yes.”
I ask why it is important the dinosaurs come back to Mongolia. What does the country get from putting in all this effort? The tourist figures are not that high.
“It makes people feel proud of their country,” she says.
“When the Bataar came back in 2013, it was a very big sensation. I think during that time people were proud of their country and [the Bataar skeleton] got the nickname ‘Mongolian Hero’. So for Mongolian people, [the skeleton] was a hero and people were very excited.”
And she has big plans for the future too. Her plans are to create a tourist industry based on paleontology and dinosaurs.
G.Dulamsuren would love to rival America and China, the two other countries with the highest number of fossils, she says.
But to do this, she needs money, and says it is unlikely to come from the government at this time.
“Maybe we could start a kick-starter, I was thinking,” she says. “What do you think?”
I jokingly suggest that she ask Nicholas Cage for some money
She laughs, and says, “Yes, maybe he should help to renovate it, he seems to be a big fan of dinosaurs.”
Then she stops laughing and becomes serious, speaking passionately she says, “Mongolia should be known worldwide for its paleontology.
“It should be one of the most powerful countries for paleontology. Then maybe we can make video games, museums and movies, and have a successful tourism industry based on that. Many things are possible.”
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