Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Woman Who Saved Mongolia’s Dinosaurs

Mongolia was a fossil poacher’s paradise until Oyungerel Tsedevdamba stepped in.

You were trained in public policy. What got you interested in dinosaurs?
In 2006 I was driving in the Mongolian countryside with my family. I stopped to take a photograph of camels in the sunshine, and talked with tourists who were also taking pictures. One was from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and he invited us to come for a back-room tour.
A few months later I began a program at Yale University, near New York, and got to take that tour. On it, I asked about the Mongolian dinosaurs I saw. The guide said they were Mongolian property and would be returned if we had a dinosaur museum. I knew little about paleontology, but I wondered why we never had a museum if we had so many dinosaurs.
Did you end up looking into it?
Not for some time. On a trip to Chicago in 2010 I met a Mongolian paleontologist named Bolortsetseg Minjin, who told me she wanted Mongolians to learn about paleontology so they would stop stealing their own dinosaurs.
I asked what I could do to help. She gave me books about illegal fossil hunters and paleontology expeditions to Mongolia—as well as lots of Web links to read. And she asked me to write an article that would change Mongolians’ attitudes toward dinosaurs.
Did you write that article?
Eventually. At the time, I read the books. But soon after I was granted an Eisenhower fellowship—for people in international leadership roles to study in the United States. I told the committee that I wanted to study dinosaurs and fossil management. When they asked why, I said I wanted to bring dinosaurs home. Mongolia was—and is—having a mining boom, so we needed to know more about preserving paleontology sites.
On my fellowship I visited Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, where I met chief park paleontologist Dan Chure. He told me why there was so much that Mongolians needed to learn and do, and explained how smuggling was becoming a big problem. That’s how it struck me that I must do something. In March 2012, I finally wrote that article.
What was the piece about?
I wrote it from the point of view of a dinosaur. I introduced myself as Tarbosaurus bataar, a dinosaur similar to Tyrannosaurus rex, that once lived in Mongolia. “I am supposed to be a superstar,” I wrote, “but I am nobody because nobody knows me.” I also wrote about other dinosaurs that could be heroes for Mongolia, if only we cared about them. A Mongolian newspaper published the article in May 2012.
Did your writing spur further action?
The very morning after it was published I was having breakfast when my husband came in and said, “You have to see what is on my computer. It is important.” Then he showed me an article saying that somebody was about to auction a 70-million-year-old Tarbosaurus bataar fossil in New York.
I thought, this is the case that can save Mongolian dinosaurs. But it was Friday, and the auction was scheduled for Sunday.
Read the whole interview here

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