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Crime & Justice

Man sentenced to jail for smuggling dinosaur bones from Mongolia

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A fossil collector named Eric Prokopi was sentenced in federal court to three months in prison for smuggling dinosaur bones from Mongolia. 

The case was called the United States of America vs. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar, and though it's unusual to see a dinosaur listed as a defendant in a federal court case, the practice that brought on this legal battle is all too common.

Brian Switek, who writes about dinosaurs for National Geographic, said there is a thriving black market for fossils, which can fetch upwards of a million dollars on the private market.

The divide between the commercial and academic worlds of paleontology has been highlighted in recent years as commercially collected specimens — like the Tyrannosaurus Sue, now at the Chicago Field Museum — have sold for increasing amounts of money. This puts them out of reach for most academic or scientific institutions that would use them for study, rather than decoration. 

Many fossils end up in private collections of millionaires, never accessed by science or the public. What's worse, said Switek, many commercial collectors destroy or ignore important historical evidence at the dig site where the fossils are collected that would add to scientific understanding of the prehistoric past.

Frequently these profit-seeking fossil hunters make aggregate skeletons from various specimens, forge parts of fossils or illegally export them from countries with laws against it, like Mongolia.

Eric Prokopi bought parts of three different skeletons of Tyrannosaurus Bataar, a smaller Tyrannosaurus Rex-like predator that roamed parts of Mongolia and China 70 million years ago. 

Mongolia has strict laws that prohibit the sale and export of fossil remains except those overseen by the government. When Prokopi put his T. Bataar skeleton up for auction in New York in 2012, it attracted the attention of several paleontologists and the Mongolian government, who were able to stop the auction from going through. 

The bones were seized by the federal government and will be returned to Mongolia where they will be exhibited in a new museum.