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Restoring Mongolia's fossil heritage

Bolortsetseg Minjin is on a mission to protect and celebrate the Gobi's fossil treasures

Eighty million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period, Mongolia's Gobi Desert was a dinosaur's paradise of vast valleys, freshwater lakes and a humid climate.

Mammal-eating velociraptors, lizard-hipped sauropods and spike-armoured ankylosaurs could have been spotted roaming in what are now the Martian red sandstone spires of Bayanzag's Flaming Cliffs.

These prehistorically favourable conditions make the Gobi Desert the largest dinosaur fossil reservoir in the world.

Over almost 100 years of palaeontological research in the Gobi, more than 80 genera have been found. But for many people living there, this scientific heritage remains unknown.

"Putting a fence up is not protection; protection is people's knowledge," Mongolian palaeontologist Bolortsetseg Minjin explains as we wind through the Flaming Cliffs in search of signs of fossil poaching.

It was here, nearly a hundred years ago, that the world's first dinosaur egg nests were found by American scientist Roy Chapman Andrews - the whip-wielding, trilby-wearing inspiration for Indiana Jones.

This discovery was a turning point in the palaeontological history of the world - the first proof that dinosaurs laid eggs.

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Image captionThe American Roy Chapman Andrews worked in the region in the early 20th

CenturyIn the space of just two years, his expedition team unearthed over 100 dinosaurs and took them home to the American Museum of Natural History where many stand today.

And in Bayanzag, renamed the Flaming Cliffs by Chapman-Andrews, little remains to mark this history.

There are no signs, maps or museums to give visitors information about these creatures. Fossil-poaching is rife and as we explored the site, motorcycle scramblers zigzagged over its prize excavation opportunities.

Unlike in America and the UK, where a finders keepers law applies if you happen to discover a T. rex lurking in your flower beds, in Mongolia, as with Brazil and China, any fossils found are state-owned and exports are strictly forbidden.

Yet, dinosaurs from fossil-rich sites like the Flaming Cliffs are still smuggled and find their way into premier auctions.

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image captionEfforts are now being made to bring back fossils that were taken abroad

Among the 30 stolen Mongolian fossils Bolortsetseg has worked to repatriate to date was a Tarbosaurus bataar, a rare cousin of the T. Rex. It had been bought by Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage.

And an earlier BBC investigation found that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has seized $44m worth of smuggled dinosaur fossils in the last five years.

Bolortsetseg says the solution is education and dinosaur-based tourism.

It can be achieved, she believes, by inspiring the next generation of Mongolia's palaeontologists and teaching children in the communities local to these significant sites about their scientific importance.

Beth Timmins

image captionLike all good palaeontologists, Bolortsetseg has a sharp eye for fossils

She has excavated in the Gobi Desert for decades, starting professionally when the American Museum of Natural History had invited her palaeontologists father for a dig and allowed her to join too - but as a cook.

"After the first morning making them breakfast, they headed out to excavate so I just thought, I'll go too," she explains. Already with a masters in palaeontology in her early twenties and a prospector's knowledge of her local area - she was immediately spotting all manner of fossils and got invited back as a palaeontologist in her own right.

And now, through communities separated by thousands of miles of desert, Bolortsetseg has been driving a 37ft bus brimming with replica fossils - the originals never before seen by most Mongolians.

Bolortsetseg Minjin asked the American Museum of Natural History to donate the bus

"Even the kids who live right by the Flaming Cliffs often have no idea about the dinosaurs that have been found here, most can't name any dinosaurs and the bus is the first museum they've ever seen," Bolortsetseg explains.

Bolortsetseg founded the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs in 2007 and crowd-funded $46,000 for the museum's workshops across different regions.

Now the mobile museum stops off along dusty, bumpy off-roads through 11 provinces of the most remote parts of Mongolia.

"Before this, I didn't know anything about dinosaurs and now these things make me really proud," says 15-year-old Nyambayar Purevdorj, who lives next to the Tugrugiin Shiree site where