Back on May 23, I posted about the story of a skeleton of the Mongolian tyrannosaur Tarbosaurus that was about to go up for auction. The specimen was a nearly complete skeleton, mislabeled “Tyrannosaurus” to increase its market value, and a major auction house was served with a restraining order just after it had auctioned off the specimen for over a million dollars. The paleontological community had been in an uproar for weeks when the sale was first announced, since it was clearly a smuggled and illegally poached specimen from Mongolia, where no fossil can be removed for sale legally. The Mongolian government, U.S. Customs and Homeland Security, and many others were investigating the specimen. Both American and Mongolian paleontologists pointed out that this species is only known from Mongolia, and furthermore, the matrix around the specimen and its distinctive bone texture and color demonstrated it came from the Nemegt Formation, the only Mongolian formation where tarbosaurs have been found.
Shortly after the story appeared, the sale was stopped pending further investigation. Then the wheels of justice began grinding slowly along as investigators dug into the data about the fossil, tracked down the anonymous “paleontologist” who had procured it, and then supplied the information to our legal system. Just before New Year’s Eve, the story broke that the culprit, poacher Eric Prokopi of Gainesville, Florida, had pled guilty. His sentencing is due in May, and he may get up to 17 years in prison for smuggling contraband into the U.S.
The evidence against him was overwhelming. As this article reveals and this article discusses in detail, he was caught not only with multiple dinosaur specimens from Mongolia in his possession in his Florida home (from where he runs a lucrative business selling fossils, complete with this glitzy website), but another dinosaur from Mongolia arrived at his address while he was being investigated! In his possession were not only illegal specimens from Mongolia, but also illegal specimens from China, including the “four-winged” dinosaur Microraptor gui, which comes a very specific area of the Liaoning province of China, and cannot leave China under any legal means. Investigators found abundant emails from Prokopi’s computer, and from those of his associates, that establish that he knew the specimen was illegal, and was doing his best to cover up its illegality (despite his assurances to the auction house via forged documents that the specimen was not from Mongolia). There were even pictures of him in Mongolia, collecting the specimens from a well-known locality that is easily identified in the photo, proving that he not only smuggled specimens in and out, but apparently snuck in and out of the country illegally as well. No wonder he pled guilty—no competent lawyer is going to try to make the case that he wasn’t aware of what he was doing in the face of such damning evidence.
But trust the media to get the story completely backwards. A Gainesville columnist (and apparently a friend of the family) wrote a classic “sob-story” piece about how this “poor working paleontologist” is being unfairly persecuted by The System. They post a picture of him with his family (and a giant ground sloth skeleton—did anyone check if that was legally obtained?) in his Gainesville driveway, and talk about his lovely blonde wife who used to be a dolphin trainer at Orlando’s Discovery Cove, and his two young children. They interview his mother, Doris Prokopi, who (like the mothers of all criminals) can’t imagine her child doing anything wrong. The story starts out with a beautiful portrait of a young man who just wanted to collect fossils and “follow his dream”:
They seemed made for each other, the boy and his hobby. He was a loner in those days. Shy, but highly intelligent and extremely motivated. A 10-year-old happy to spend a day beneath a merciless sun while digging for fossils. Other hobbyists seemed to enjoy the camaraderie. The boy was in it for the hunt. This is where our story begins, with a youngster from Pasco County who dreamed of dinosaurs, discoveries and adventures. The plot has since crossed decades and borders with stops in museums and auction houses before finally reaching a federal courthouse in New York on Thursday afternoon. And that is where Eric Prokopi pleaded guilty to fulfilling his dream. “This is crazy. He was doing what he loved,” his mother, Doris Prokopi, said Friday from her Land O’Lakes home. “That’s what he told them when he was arrested. That this was like arresting Indiana Jones. He collects these bones and puts them all together. “This was always his dream. I don’t think he wanted to do anything else.” The question now is how should we interpret all of this? Is Prokopi a comic book hero or a black market mastermind? A scientist or a profiteer?
Well, Prokopi is no scientist, and certainly no comic-book hero. He apparently has little professional paleontological training, and is only interested in fossils as a means to profit, not for scientific purposes. So the columnist leaves us with the only choice: profiteer and black-market mastermind. At least the columnist doesn’t deny that Prokopi broke the law, or that the specimens were illegally obtained. Yet the column doesn’t reveal any more of the details of his long history of smuggling, and his activities in Mongolia that were undertaken fully knowing their illegality. Instead of pointing out that the evidence and the plea bargain shows undisputed criminal activity, the columnist tries to throw the blame on the government, on the big museums, on Mongolia, or anyone else convenient. Talk about a big piece of PR whitewash! This is the kind of things that defense attorneys do because they have to take their client’s side in a case, but what does this say about journalistic ethics and fairness? It raises the issue of whether the “journalist” had a conflict of interest in the column, or just some sort of axe to grind against government and museums and Mongolians. This is the same thing that all the caught and convicted poachers do: they portray themselves as innocent small businesses (never mind the overwhelming evidence showing they knowingly violated lots of laws); they claim that they are upstanding citizens just trying to make a living; they claim that the specimens would have been destroyed if they hadn’t recovered them.
The first two arguments are simple self-deception and dishonest PR garbage. But the last argument (that the specimens would have been lost) is even more fundamentally dishonest. They may find specimens weathering out of the ground (or worse, follow legitimate scientists to their sites and plunder them later, which happens often). But the poached specimens are sold to bored rich folks or for decorating fancy buildings, and lost forever from the scientific community and the public trust, even though the vast majority of poached fossils come from public lands. We get no more scientific value from poached specimens lost to science (along with falsified field data, or no field data at all) than we would if the specimen had never been found. Brian Switek points this problem out, and makes an even stronger case case for why the smuggling is so destructive and must stop in this post.
Meanwhile, the AAPS (the organization for commercial fossil dealers) has thrown Prokopi out for violating their by-laws. On the Vertebrate Paleontology listserver, a long-term friend and fellow collector who worked with Prokopi before 2001 says he witnessed Prokopi becoming more and more interested in bending the law to obtain more profitable fossils, and cut off his association with him after 2001 because of his illegal activities. According to this article, the prevailing tone among the fossil dealers is not so much outrage that he was collecting illegal Mongolian specimens, but anger that he was so blatant and flashy with a huge skeleton that was bound to attract attention, and spoil the show for their more subtle activities.
Now the question is in the hands of a judge, who has the option of sentencing this criminal to as much as 17 years in prison. Most paleontologists I know are strongly in favor a stiff sentence, not only because this guy was so blatant in his lying and deception, and was making millions on his poached specimens, but also because it will send a message to the poachers and smugglers out there that their long-unsupervised activities just got a lot more risky. Already, my sources tell me that nearly all other Mongolian fossils are off the block for a while, as other auction houses are leery of getting bad publicity and getting in trouble with the law. Maybe it will put a chill in the smuggler’s pipeline back to Mongolia and China as well. What hasn’t been revealed yet is how such a big specimen was so easily smuggled out of Mongolia, and even more amazingly, through U.S. Customs. So far, all we’ve heard is that Prokopi mixed the tarbosaur bones with a crate of “miscellaneous reptile fossils” shipped from a middleman in England. And it turns out that the “75% complete” skeleton is actually a composite of several different skeletons, not one individual. Such fakery is common among commercial fossil dealers and smugglers. Clearly, there needs to be a lot further investigation on this criminal enterprise, and Prokopi is just the tip of the iceberg. Much of what investigators found has since been revealed in this article, but hopefully the authorities will be making other arrests soon.
In answer to Prokopi’s mother’s comparison of her son to “Indiana Jones,” she apparently misremembers the movies a bit. Indy was always dedicated to bringing archeological relics to museums and keeping them in the public trust, not selling them to the highest bidder. (Today, most archeologists wouldn’t even consider removing artifacts from their country of origin, due to the increased sensitivity of most countries to the removal of their cultural heritage). No, the better comparison is to the character Belloq in the first “Indiana Jones” movie (or the thieves in the beginning of the third movie), who gleefully sells any object (and their services) to whomever would pay for them. As paleontologist Peter Harries of the University of South Florida points out in the end of the sob-story column: “I don’t think Indiana Jones wanted to sell the Ark of the Covenant for $1 million.”