Image: Protoceratops Skeleton on display at the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs, Ulaanbaatar (Gary Todd/Wikimedia Commons [CC0 1.0 Universal])

Dinosaur Fossils Return Home to Mongolia


On August 3rd, 2023, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) held a ceremony to return a collection of dinosaur bones and fossils to Mongolia. HSI has been part of a longstanding effort to recover, and repatriate stolen Mongolian fossils, which are of great cultural importance.

Long gone is the age of dinosaurs, but for the dinosaur bones that still remain, their importance suggests that dinosaurs are not yet a thing of the past. In Mongolia, the Gobi Desert is considered the largest fossil reservoir in the world, with scientists discovering more than 80 genera from over 60 fossil sites. To safeguard this invaluable history, Mongolian law designates all fossils discovered within its borders as state property and bans any exportation.

In recent years, this law has come in handy as the illicit fossil trade has boomed, helping Mongolia repatriate many stolen artifacts. On August 3rd, 2023, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) held a ceremony in the Library of Congress for the return of a sizable collection of dinosaur fossils to Mongolia’s Ambassador to the United States, Batbayar Ulziidelger. These fossils¾seized from all over the United States, including Arizona, New York, and Wyoming¾were smuggled to the US through illegal importation methods.

The repatriation of Mongolian dinosaur fossils stretches all the way back to 2012 when HSI New York investigated an illicit sale at a US-based auction house. The 8-foot tall, 24-foot long Tarbosaurus had been auctioned off for $1,052,500 to an unidentified buyer, leading the Government of Mongolia to obtain a US court order for its return.

The latest collection of repatriated fossils includes a Tyrannosaurus bataar skull, a protoceratops fossil, an alioramus skull, and a saurolophus skull. The alioramus is a smaller version of the tyrannosaurus rex and is exclusively found in Mongolia, which not only has a large collection of fossils, but also some of the most well-preserved ones in the world. For these reasons, the country is embracing dinosaurs and making them a central part of attracting more tourism.

On July 29th-30th, 2023, Mongolia hosted its first ever Dinosaur Festival, which is planned to be an annual event to attract tourists. The event took place at the Bayanzag archeological site in the Gobi Desert and consisted of artifact exhibitions, a laser show, a holographic presentation, and a special tour with dinosaur fossil hunters. This is part of Mongolia’s aim to receive up to one million tourists a year after declaring 2023-2024 the “Visit Mongolia” year.

More than just tourism, Mongolia also sees dinosaur fossils as an integral part of their cultural heritage since it means that the people of the country share a place with creatures that once ruled the planet. During the ceremony, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Mongolia Battsetseg Batmunkh remarked thatthe remarkable journey of these artifacts demonstrates the strength of collaborative diplomacy and a solid dedication to preserving our cultural heritage.”

Cecilia Winchell is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a recent graduate from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas with a major in Philosophy and a minor in Public Policy.