The United States repatriated the fossils of over 18 dinosaurs to Mongolia on Thursday following an investigation into an illegal collection. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. federal prosecutors and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials found the Cretaceous and Cenozoic-era fossils in the possession of a commercial paleontologist, Eric Prokopi. Prokopi was sentenced to three months in prison “for his role in the illegal trade of more than 30 fossils.”
Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, noted that the recovered treasures were “sufficient to stock a natural-history museum.” The dinosaurs whose fossils were returned to the government of Mongolia include two 20-foot Tyrannosaurus Bataars (a slightly smaller variant of the more famous Tyrannosaurus Rex), Protoceratops, Oviraptors, and “several” Gallimimus. Mongolian officials were also given prehistoric turtle fossils and a fossilized egg.
The fossils were returned to Mongolian officials in a ceremony on Thursday. “The fossils that we’re returning today don’t belong to any private collection or any one owner, they belong to the people of Mongolia,” said James Hayes, Special Agent-in-Charge for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations office in New York, said as quoted in the Wall Street Journal.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The dinosaur fossils were all originally excavated in the Gobi desert and smuggled abroad. The fossils were broken into several pieces as they were smuggled through U.S. customs between 2005 and 2012. Thursday’s repatriation represents the culmination of a two-year effort by U.S. officials to recover the lost fossils. Mongolia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Od Och accepted the fossils on behalf of his government in New York.
According to Mongolian law, any dinosaur fossils excavated in the country are considered national property and it is a crime to remove them from the country. Och noted at the ceremony that the repatriation of these treasures to Mongolia represents the “best practice of international cooperation to fight organized crime.” Relations between Mongolia and the United States have been growing warmer in recent years and this episode will only serve to keep relations warm.