The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has returned a 70 million-year-old T-Rex skeleton to the Mongolian government after an international custody battle.
During Monday's repatriation ceremony, ICE officials released the massive Tyrannosaurus bataar into the custody of the Mongolian government, ending an international controversy between two governments and self-described “commercial paleontologist” Eric Prokopi, LiveScience reports.
“We cannot allow the greed of a few looters and schemers to trump the cultural interests of an entire nation,” ICE Director John Morton said in a statement.
In May 2012, Prokopi imported the 8-foot-tall, 24-foot-long Tyrannosaurus bataar from an anonymous dealer in England, preparing and mounting the specimen with Heritage Auctions. The skeleton received a $1.05 million bid at auction, drawing international attention and the ire of Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia.
Tsakhia insisted that the T-Rex specimen originated in Mongolia, citing paleontologists who claimed that nearly every complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton has been recovered from the Gobi desert, LiveScience reports. In addition, he claimed that the skeleton had been smuggled out of Mongolia illegally, alluding to laws that designate all fossils as state property.
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Prokopi, a Gainesville, Fla., resident, was arrested in December on charges of conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, possess stolen property and making false statements. Still, the collector maintained his right to the remains, claiming that his prosecution was merely an effort “to please a foreign government out for a political trophy," LiveScience reports.
While Prokopi faces up to 17 years in federal prison, defense attorney Georges Lederman doesn't believe that his client will receive a maximum sentence.
"We are confident that the sentence imposed will be a fair and reasonable one and will take into account all the proactive measures my client has made," Lederman told LiveScience, noting his willingness to cooperate with authorities. According to an ICE statement, Prokopi surrendered a total of four dinosaur skeletons as part of a plea deal.
The Mongolian government has lauded ICE’s willingness to return the T-Rex. Tsagaan Puntsag, chief of office for the president of Mongolia, referred to the skeleton as “a hero dinosaur.”
“We are ... grateful to all the organizations and individuals who helped make it happen,” Puntsag said.