Dinosaur robbers prowl the desert

Sun Journal

Poachers: Fortune seekers are descending on Asia's vast Gobi desert, taking dinosaur bones staked out by paleontologists.

September 01, 1999|By Maggie Farley | Maggie Farley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BUGAAN TSAV, Mongolia -- Pagmin Narmandakh shuffles through the Gobi desert in her bedroom slippers, marching over the bones of dinosaurs slumbering in an ancient seabed just below the silty surface.

One of Mongolia's top paleontologists, she has been exploring the Gobi for more than 30 years. With her well-trained eye, she makes finding prehistoric relics seem easy. She has found giant tarbosaurs and tiny archaic turtles; today on her way to a dig in progress, she plucks 70-million-year-old mollusks from the sand as casually as picking seashells off the beach.

But as she crests a hill to the excavation site, she makes an unwelcome discovery. Where there was a skeleton of a toothy, meat-eating tarbosaur, there is now just a crude hole hacked in the ground. Left behind are empty boxes of gypsum plaster used for jacketing the bones, rolls of packing tape and aluminum foil, and jeep tracks so fresh the fierce Gobi winds have yet to erase them.

"Oh," says Narmandakh, finding it suddenly harder to breathe in the 100-degree heat. "It's been robbed!"

She kicks a rock into the ragged hole and hurries to the next site.

Another hole.

The duck-billed skull and the front arms of a long-necked saurolophus have been plundered. A rib juts out of the broken red earth, and other bones lie shattered across the hillside.

"This is my territory," she says, hands on hips, surveying the area known as "Narmandakh's Field" because of her discoveries here. The sandy sediment hides a graveyard of dinosaurs, from the horned-nosed protoceratops with a bony ruff on its neck to the rarer ostrich-like gallimimus.

Time capsule

The isolation and aridity of the southern Gobi have protected the dinosaur remains, making the area a time capsule cherished by paleontologists.

While researchers in other countries were trying to extract information from fragments of bone or eggshell, not long ago scientists here could literally trip over a skull sticking out of the sandstone.

But now the dinosaur snatchers have arrived. Seven sites have been raided here in Bugaan Tsav, where myriad finds in the past decade have filled important blanks in the story of time.

"Mongolia is one of the world's great places for dinosaurs," says Michael Novacek, a paleontologist from the American Museum of Natural History.

Recent discoveries in the region have bolstered old theories that birds evolved from dinosaurs, yielded a cornucopia of new details about tiny rodentlike creatures that outlived the dinosaurs to evolve into animals we know today, and led to new theories about dinosaurs' extinction.

But now that scientists must compete with raiders for first crack at the valuable finds, part of the dinosaurs' story may remain unwritten.

The popularity of the film "Jurassic Park" heightened interest in paleontologists' work but also spurred private collectors to pay millions of dollars for prehistoric remains. Last month, a collector bid $8 million for a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in an Internet auction. The same week, the FBI recovered from Europe an unrelated T. rex jawbone stolen in 1994 from a laboratory drawer in the University of California, Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology.

The wonder of dinosaurs stretches across time, age and myth. Mongolian nomads who happened upon the enormous bones in the Gobi passed down tales of giant dragons who lived in the sky, and died when they touched the Earth.

"Dinosaurs are grand and bizarre creatures that excite people," Novacek says. "They represent a lost world. For me, they are so fascinating because elements of our modern world emerged in the time of dinosaurs, things common now like flowering plants and birds. They demonstrate in multidimensional terms where we come from. We are all rooted in the time of the dinosaurs."

Opening in 1920s

It wasn't until earlier this century that Mongolia became known as a cradle of dinosaur life, and then it was only discovered by accident.

In the 1920s, U.S. explorer Roy Chapman Andrews led an expedition to the Gobi for the American Museum of Natural History in search of traces of prehistoric humans. A swashbuckling adventurer, he arrived in the Gobi with 23 cars, 150 camels and dozens of porters. His team found some of the first intact dinosaur eggs and excavated complete dinosaur skeletons remarkably well preserved.

In 1928 Mongolia's Communist leaders shut out Western scientists. It wasn't until 1990 that the doors opened once again. In the meantime, Mongolian scientists such as Narmandakh who were trained in the former Soviet Union continued the search.

Narmandakh, 52, moves slowly but steadily, like the ancient turtles that are her specialty. She wanders slowly into a canyon, then suddenly materializes on the top of a red sandstone spire, silhouetted in the distance against the wide blue sky. She waves, signaling yet another discovery.

"It's so exciting every time you find something. It keeps you coming back" she says.

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