Curious underworld of fossil smuggling highlighted by T-Rex case

Tarbosaurus

Erik Prokopi, a Florida fossil dealer, could face 17 years in prison after pleading guilty to fossil smuggling, namely at least two near-complete Tarbosaurus skeletons. Photo Credit: DaBler/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA

Where there is demand, a supply shall rise to meet it and apparently there was a demand for three complete Tyrannosaur skeletons somewhere. There is a small but curious black market for fossils, replete with fossil smuggling, one of the more recent instances being the Tyrannosaur incident.

This case of fossil smuggling was the smaller type of Tyrannosaur

Just as an aside, the Tyrannosaur featured in, say, the “Jurassic Park,” namely Tyrannosaurus Rex, meaning “king of the tyrant lizards,” is not the only tyrannosaur, which is the name of a whole family of dinosaurs. One such is Tyrannosaurus bataar, also called Tarbosaurus or Tarbosaurus bataar, basically a three-quarter size T. Rex from Asia.

More than one near-whole Tarbosaur skeleton along with several other complete dinosaur skeletons, according to CNN, were part of the biggest fossil smuggling bust in living memory. Erik Prokopi, a Florida fossil dealer, may face 17 years in prison for smuggling the bones.

An alarming case

Prokopi recently pleaded guilty to the charges and his fate will be decided in April 2013. Given that there are five complete skeletons in the fossil smuggling case, it certainly was brazen. Prokopi, according to the Daily Mail, sold one Tarbosaur skeleton to a collector in Manhattan for $1.1 million, which was seized by authorities. A second almost fully assembled Tarbosaur skeleton was found at his home.

He had also, according to the BBC, assembled and sold a Saurolophus skeleton to a collector for $75,000 several years ago, which was also seized by authorities from a Florida residence. There were also two Oviraptor skeletons and the bones of a “Chinese flying dinosaur.”

Prokopi excavated the remains in Mongolia, claiming they were rocks or broken lizard bones to customs officials and spending up to a year assembling the skeletons before selling them to collectors.

Kind of a big deal

Admit it – it would be awesome to have a dinosaur skeleton. Most are in museums or at universities, but willing buyers are out there, hence fossil smuggling. According to National Geographic, a number of people tread into the wilderness in countries all over the world, finding dinosaur and other fossils to sell to collectors as a profession. Collectors have included Bill Gates and Charlie Sheen. Many farmers keep an eye out for anything good on their property worldwide, in case they find something to sell.

China, Russia and the Western U.S. are hotspots. Mongolia, according to The Independent, where Prokopi got his specimens, is as well. In the United States, one requires a permit to remove fossils from federal land. Private sellers with legally obtained specimens can sell them. National Geographic quotes a Montana-based fossil hunter in the U.S., who often splits profits with landowners where he finds them. Mongolia forbids exportation of fossils, meaning Prokopi did so illegally. Some go for big money; a legally held T. Rex specimen, named “Sue,” was sold by a private seller in 1997 for $8.36 million, though to the Chicago Field Museum.

It’s estimated that fossil trade, illicit and otherwise, comprises anywhere from tens of millions to upward of 100 million pounds (about $162 million) per year, according to the Independent.

Sources

CNN

Daily Mail

BBC

The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/fossil-theft-one-of-our-dinosaurs-is-missing-1826931.html

National Geographic: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/prehistoric-world/fossil-wars.html#page=1

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