Bolor Minjin

Bolor Minjin

Meet Mongolian paleontologist Bolor Minjin. She has made protecting and preserving the fossil heritage of the Gobi desert her mission in life. Bolor’s the founder and director of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian dinosaurs. In 2012, she was instrumental in stopping the sale of an illegally collected Tyrannosaur baatar skeleton from her country. Hers is a fascinating and not often heard story.

Transcripts

Sandi:                       Welcome to another addition of Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein. I’m guessing most of you haven’t paid much attention to the issue of protecting the fossil heritage of Mongolia. Well, my guest today, paleontologist Bolor Minjin has done much more than that. Making it her mission in life. Mongolia is the richest fossil area in the world. In terms of diversity in numbers, it has more fossils than anywhere else on the planet. Thanks in part to the Gobi Desert. There’s little vegetation, so when it rains, it floods and new fossils emerge. Additionally, the deserts been arid for most of the last 65 million years, helping to preserve dinosaur fossils. Preserving fossils is Bolor’s focus. A specialist in vertebrae fossils from 145 million to 65 million years ago, Bolor has made numerous expeditions throughout the Gobi. She had located sixty seven dinosaur fossils in the desert in the span of just one week. Bolor is the founder and director of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs. In 2012, Bolor was instrumental in stopping the sale of an illegally collected tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton from Mongolia, coordinating the return and shipment of the unique specimen. This led to the discovery of a vast network of fossil poaching in her native country. The eventual recovery of many more specimens. In 2012, Bolor helped establish the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs: Home of the Tyrannosaurus Bataar. A year later she was awarded a Polar Star by the Mongolian Government for her efforts in protecting the country’s fossil heritage. Bolor is married to an American Paleontologist. They live on Long Island New York, with their young daughter.

                                 Bolor, welcome and thanks so much for joining me today.

Bolor:                       Thank you for having me.

Sandi:                       The study of fossils apparently runs in your family because your dad is a paleontologist and is that how you got interested in dinosaurs? He used to bring his work home?

Bolor:                       Yes. Pretty much, yes. My dad really helped me. Supported me. Also, he was a teacher for me. To be paleontologist and considering how few paleontologist in Mongolia and very few people I can go and ask to be my advisor or teacher.

Sandi:                       Mentor.

Bolor:                       Mentor. Yes. My father, he actually was my Master’s Advisor.

Sandi:                       When you were getting your Master’s Degree?

Bolor:                       Yea.

Sandi:                       Your dad was your advisor.

Bolor:                       Yes. [Laughing]

Sandi:                       [Laughing] That must have been a little awkward or odd.

Bolor:                       Well, I think, it was uncomfortable but my undergraduate is in geology. I got my Bachelor’s Degree University of Science and Technology in Mongolia where my father has been teaching over forty years.

Sandi:                       Ah Ha

Bolor:                       I took his class when I was an undergraduate. I know he’s way, how he teaches and his subject area.

Sandi:                       Did the other students know you were father and daughter.

Bolor:                       Sure.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       Because not many students in the class.

Sandi:                       [Laughing] It wasn’t over populated, huh?

Bolor:                       Yea. No, not at all. For me, I’m actually quite lucky, that way. I have a father who is a paleontologist. When I was much younger, I really didn’t know exactly what my father does. I know he is being geologist because he go to countryside in Mongolia every summer. Bringing bags of rocks.

Sandi:                       Back home with him?

Bolor:                       Back home with him. I been in his classrooms that he was teaching and I’ve seen sculptures of dinosaurs. Mastodons and you know.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       All these fossils. Small sculptures. For me looked very interesting but I wasn’t really, really wasn’t into it. There’s very limited number of sources that you can learn about dinosaurs and paleontology in Mongolia. Even when I was small, I didn’t have a book on dinosaurs.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm. Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       I didn’t have a toy of dinosaurs.

Sandi:                       Right. Well, you’re also a girl. Forget the sexism, there’s also that too. Right. Do girls tend to play with dinosaurs?

Bolor:                       That’s true. I know here in the States, a lot of boys like dinosaurs.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       In terms of Mongolia, it’s a very different picture. In all kids in Mongolia had not much of opportunity to learn about dinosaurs except we had a Natural History Museum in Mongolia. That you can go there, see a real dinosaurs.

Sandi:                       But, that’s so funny. Because, here, you didn’t have much opportunity, but on the other hand, you’re country, like I said is the riches fossil area in the world. It just seems like such a strange dichotomy. This is where the dinosaurs were hanging out and most kids don’t even know from that.

Bolor:                       That’s the exactly the thing that I being focusing on. Because, even now, today, there’s not much dinosaur books even in Mongolian language.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       There are a few books been translated from English, but not much of books a kids can go around.

Sandi:                       In your native tongue.

Bolor:                       In native tongue. In Mongolian and no toys.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       There are toys sometimes when parents go different countries and bring some toys and play with them.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       So very limited. Also, still the dinosaur exhibits not often being updated.

Sandi:                       So, not much has changed in a way since you were a youngster.

Bolor:                       No. Not much.

Sandi:                       In spite of your efforts.

Bolor:                       Exactly.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       That’s the thing I really want to change. That considering how well our Mongolian dinosaurs been known around the world. Especially here in the States. Every kid almost name the species of Mongolian dinosaurs. Then, our institute back in 2009, we did first dinosaur outreach for kids in Mongolia out in the Gobi. We specifically chose this town that is right next to the fossil site called Flaming Cliffs. That’s very historical important paleontological site.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       Back in 1920s, the scientist from American Museum of Natural History, he led the expedition to Mongolia to look for.

Sandi:                       To uncover fossils

Bolor:                       They were actually looking for human origins. They had an idea that maybe human origins in mammal originated in Asia. They basically went with that kind of mission, but instead they discovered a rich fossils of dinosaurs’ sites in Mongolia. One of them is the Flaming Cliffs. Which is the site they discovered first dinosaur nest in the world. Back then, that expedition thought that dinosaur nest, egg nest was protoceratops’ nest. Later on, there were second expedition came back to Mongolia after seventy years, they discovered another discovery which was, there was a dinosaur called Oviraptor was sitting on the nest.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       The same nest that was being discovered back in 1920s.

Sandi:                       So, seventy years passed.

Bolor:                       Mm Hmm

Sandi:                       That’s wild, isn’t it?

Bolor:                       Yes. So then, it wasn’t, the nest wasn’t made by protodceratop dinosaur, instead it was actually made different dinosaur called Oviraptor. Which means, egg-stealer. That fossil site is very important. Historically.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       First dinosaurs been found from Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       Mongolian dinosaurs. These kids, live right next to these fossil sites.

Sandi:                       And didn’t know it.

Bolor:                       Didn’t know. They have some knowledge.

Sandi:                       Or, their parents didn’t know it.

Bolor:                       Well parents. Usually nomads, local people, do have some general idea, I mean knowledge of dinosaurs came from Gobi.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       But they don’t really know much what kind of dinosaurs, how important it was. How big. They don’t have such information to look for. To find out.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       Because we didn’t have much sources. What happened is all those dinosaurs been out of country. 2009. We had this first dinosaur educational outreach to kids from different. Three different towns in the Gobi. We chose those three towns because those three towns actually also close to another fossil sites.

Sandi:                       You said you had expeditions there?

Bolor:                       Kids educational outreach project.

Sandi:                       That was you’re doing. To reach out to these children who were living so close to these fossil sites.

Bolor:                       Exactly. Because, these kids who live right next to it, they don’t know about much dinosaurs.

Sandi:                       Right.

Bolor:                       We really want these kids know and excited about the dinosaurs. Right next to

Sandi:                       In their back yards.

Bolor:                       Exactly. The backyards. They play.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       They can be future paleontologists.

Sandi:                       Hello.

Bolor:                       You know.

Sandi:                       Yea.

Bolor:                       That’s very important. All these years, since 1920s, some people in Mongolia don’t know about.

Sandi:                       There’s nothing much going on there.

Bolor:                       Exactly.

Sandi:                       Because people didn’t know.

Bolor:                       Mm Hmm

Sandi:                       How old were you when you came to the States? You got your undergraduate degree in Mongolia.

Bolor:                       I got my Master’s. Was early twenties. I think maybe around twenty-three.

Sandi:                       You came here to get your Doctorate all by yourself. Did you know anyone here?

Bolor:                       No, only people from the expedition who were with me out in the Gobi. I didn’t know anyone. I don’t, my English was very bad. I can’t express myself well.

Sandi:                       That must have been really scary.

Bolor:                       It was very scary. Especially, I only seen New York from

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Bolor:                       Movie, right.

Sandi:                       Real different from the Gobi, wouldn’t you say?

Bolor:                       Oh, it’s very different. I, actually grew up. Born and grew up in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.

Sandi:                       Yea, but that’s not Manhattan.

Bolor:                       It’s not a Manhattan. It was very, I guess, I had a cultural shock. I had a preconceived idea about New York because of seeing some movies and stuff.

Sandi:                       Movies. Of course.

Bolor:                       There is a lot of action movies and crime and stuff, right. It really makes you kind of

Sandi:                       Leary. A little scary.

Bolor:                       Yea. Scary. Then exciting.

Sandi:                       You come here. Had you basically been out of the country before?

Bolor:                       No.

Sandi:                       You’d never left Mongolia.

Bolor:                       Never left Mongolia. My first plane ride.

Sandi:                       Oh. God.

Bolor:                       Straight to New York.

Sandi:                       Did you have a mentor here? Did you anybody take care of you when you first arrived? You were in your early twenties. It’s just kind of crazy.

Bolor:                       Oh yeah. The expedition was led by Michael Novacek. Mark Norell. Both the scientists from American Museum of Natural History. They were mentor me and basically I came here through the expedition. I was basically, the first thing I needed to take care of was my language. I have to improve my English. So I went to English school. When I was doing that, I applied for graduate school. Then I was accepted within a year. It was hard for me coming to New York. Especially in Mongolia, just we, just open to western world.

Sandi:                       Right. You were just exposed to the West. That’s right.

Bolor:                       Then, these people from the museum was the first Westerns I saw. My second language used to be Russian.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       I was hard for me to communicate with them. Even in expedition.

Sandi:                       How long were you in New York initially? When you came.

Bolor:                       For year.

Sandi:                       For one year.

Bolor:                       Yea.

Sandi:                       Then you sent back home.

Bolor:                       Yes.

Sandi:                       You went back home and you said, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and start looking for dinosaur fossils?

Bolor:                       Well, I think, that actually happened before I came to New York. I actually already started working with this expedition in Mongolia.

Sandi:                       Right. You said.

Bolor:                       That was basically was my first

Sandi:                       Exposure?

Bolor:                       Exposure to digging fossils. Especially vertebrates. That’s basically how I started. Then every year I was going back to American Museum of Natural History Expedition. Looking for more fossils. For me, it was very exciting. I tend to see to finding small things. I guess my eyes is tuned to smaller things.

Sandi:                       What are smaller things?

Bolor:                       So small things that tend to be you can find skull of mammal. Lizards.

Sandi:                       Oh. Wow. That does sound like a smaller thing.

Bolor:                       Yes.

Sandi:                       As opposed to a really large thing that would be a dinosaur. [Laughing]

Bolor:                       Exactly. I do find occasionally some dinosaurs and the dinosaur skeletons and stuff like that. For me, I just, my eye right on the small things.

Sandi:                       Zeroed in on that.

Bolor:                       Even someone just walked by didn’t find it, I can see it and find it. Finding it’s really exciting.

Sandi:                       If you’re just joining us, my guest today is Bolor Minjin who happens to be a paleontologist from Mongolia but lives in the New York Area. I want to move a little ahead to where you did this work about finding that there were poached dinosaur fossils that were taken from your country illegally. Right?

Bolor:                       Mm Hmm

Sandi:                       How did you know about that?

Bolor:                       This poaching problem is not just a current thing. It’s been going on for years. Since Mongolia been open to become democratic country in 1990.

Sandi:                       1990. Okay.

Bolor:                       So, right after that, collapse of Soviet Union, it also effected Mongolia economically. Was really hard for us to stand on our feet. So, even there were times we didn’t have anything to buy in the grocery store.

Sandi:                       Wow.

Bolor:                       So, it was really hard. It was really hard for people’s lives. It’s just.

Sandi:                       To earn a living and survive.

Bolor:                       Yea. We never experience such thing.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       It was very difficult economically. So, I think, probably around mid-90s, this problem start to happen.

Sandi:                       That you became aware of the fact that

Bolor:                       Yeah.

Sandi:                       These precious relics were leaving your country.

Bolor:                       Yeah. I mean, I’m not physically see it. I hear things. Even when I was a student.

Sandi:                       Ah Huh.

Bolor:                       I hear about dinosaur eggs can cost money. People see start to see that is some kind of income.

Sandi:                       Sure.

Bolor:                       That’s how, the earliest I heard about what’s going on with the fossils. I start to working on vertebrates and becoming student of paleontology. Then I came here in the States. Then, when I go to meetings or when I see some catalogs of company like auction houses.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       You can start to see Mongolian fossils in it. Has a price tag on it.

Sandi:                       That, you were really more alerted to that once you came here. The problem became even more pronounced for you.

Bolor:                       Pronounced.

Sandi:                       Yeah.

Bolor:                       Because when I am in Mongolia, I don’t see those things, but I can hear it. What’s going on? People start to have a knowledge. I’m aware that the eggs and dinosaur bones can cost money.

Sandi:                       They can get it in their pockets.

Bolor:                       Yeah. Then, when I came here, start to see the dinosaurs. Mongolian dinosaurs.

Sandi:                       Where? At auction houses or

Bolor:                       Auction house, catalogs, on internet.

Sandi:                       Okay.

Bolor:                       It’s getting more and more so recent years. It’s getting like

Sandi:                       Worse.

Bolor:                       Worse. It really worried me that how we can stop this thing. It’s just a matter of time. Things can get really bad. Luckily, 2012, May 17th I was just sitting in a coffee shop having my lunch. Saw New York News.

Sandi:                       On the TV.

Bolor:                       On TV. I couldn’t hear what it say because they turned off

Sandi:                       Turned the volume off.

Bolor:                       Usually what they do.

Sandi:                       But it caught your eye.

Bolor:                       Dinosaurs look big and doesn’t look like a T-Rex. The presentation looked kind of different. I couldn’t tell if that was auction. I didn’t know what it was. I just see a dinosaur. I’m just like, maybe new species of dinosaurs is discovered. Something. Then I went back home that evening. I actually start to searching. I remember the image I saw.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm. It stuck with you.

Bolor:                       It stuck with me. I searched on Google Image and see what it was.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       It actually was auction.

Sandi:                       So it was stolen.

Bolor:                       Yeah. This auction was scheduled on May 20th. I was sitting in my home and looking on the computer May 17th.

Sandi:                       So, three days before this auction.

Bolor:                       Three days before this auction. So what happen is. Right away, I sent email to one of President’s advisor whom I was in contact some years trying to get. The one thing that our institute is that we try to get the government and politicians, bring them into this issue and find some solution how. What we can do.

Sandi:                       Did you get a response?

Bolor:                       Yes. She did. I been in contact with her before. I introduced her this problem before. I basically asked her to read multiple books about Mongolian paleontology and also this looting problem and poaching problems. Not only in Mongolian and other countries and how they are resolving books like that. I sent an email to her, saying hey. This is

Sandi:                       We’ve got a problem.

Bolor:                       We’ve got a problem. This dinosaur from Mongolia is going to be auctioned. You know, million dollar.

Sandi:                       And this is this Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton. It could only have been found in Mongolia. This was a fact.

Bolor:                       Mm Hmm

Sandi:                       So, you get the President on board. Take us, what happens in these three days before you have no time. Before May 20th. What do you do?

Bolor:                       It’s really crazy. I think time difference really helped us a lot because Mongolian time basically twelve hours forward.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       The evening ahead of us. The evening of Thursday is basically morning of Friday in Mongolia. It’s just, people just starting to going work. It was right at that time I sent this message to President’s advisor. She just, right away went to the President. Introduced, basically told him about this problem.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       Basically, soon they got together people who. The officials and ministry from science and education. So the President’s office did very quickly press release.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       About this selling of Mongolian dinosaurs. In meantime when I was here, I was trying to get paleontology community to involve with. I sent email also at same time when I sent email to President’s advisor, I basically sent email to Mark Norell of Natural History Museum here.

Sandi:                       To get on board.

Bolor:                       To get him on board. Asking if he has known about this sale, I’m asking.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       Then, also I sent email to Philip Currie, to Canadian paleontologist in Canada. All these paleontologist been working in Mongolia many years. They are very familiar with specially dinosaurs because those are dinosaur specialists.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       So, they all, we all came together. That was very important. The meantime, President’s advisor told me I should do as much. Do what I could do to stop this auction. I basically wrote a letter from our Institute to Heritage Auctions President. Asking them to hold off the auction till we find out the origin of this dinosaur.

Sandi:                       Right. Uh Huh

Bolor:                       What happened is, I was able to talk with him on the phone and he told me that his lawyer will contact me back. His lawyer sends back and contacted me back but they still. They basically saying they will proceed

Sandi:                       Go ahead.

Bolor:                       Go ahead the auction. I sent email back to Mongolia said okay we have to do this legally. They basically started looking for lawyers. Luckily they found a lawyer in Texas.

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Bolor:                       Happened to be the same town that Heritage Auctions headquarters is in.

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Bolor:                       He was very quick that he was able to get a temporary restraining order

Sandi:                       Ah Ha

Bolor:                       On Saturday

Sandi:                       Ah Ha

Bolor:                       To hold off the auction till June 1st.

Sandi:                       He bought you more time.

Bolor:                       Yes. So, he worked real hard too. Then, also people in Mongolia President’s Office and[Inaudible [00:23:03 ] . On Sunday, the auction day, I myself went with lawyer Robert Painter, he was representing the President. The lawyer. He came to New York and I was there and also another person Anne Alfman. Friend of [Inaudible [00:23:26 ]. She’s also scientist. Then, we came to auction in Chelsea area.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm Of Manhattan.

Bolor:                       Of Manhattan. At the same time there were Mongolian Community learned about this auction, they actually were protesting outside of that auction house.

Sandi:                       You were able to stop the auction.

Bolor:                       Well, auction actually proceeded, but they basically didn’t give the dinosaur to the person who bid

Sandi:                       Who bid on it.

Bolor:                       Yeah.

Sandi:                       Had the highest bid.

Bolor:                       Because of the temporary restraining order.

Sandi:                       Sure.

Bolor:                       They can’t transfer the dinosaur to the bidder. Basically, what happened is then, June 5th, Heritage Auctions agreed to have a group of paleontologists including myself to go to see this dinosaur and basically say if it’s truly from Mongolia or not. We, specialists. We been working in the Gobi so many.

Sandi;                       You’re the experts.

Bolor:                       We been working the Gobi so many years, we know how the bone looks like and

Sandi:                       Of course

Bolor:                       Anatomy.

Sandi:                       You were going to certify that this was a Mongolian dinosaur.

Bolor:                       Exactly

Sandi:                       And you did.

Bolor:                       Yes. We did.

Sandi:                       It was. So, you prevented somebody here from having [Laughing] a dinosaur from Mongolia in his or her back yard. Or in his or her gallery or whatever you, museum.

Bolor:                       Yeah. Basically, the person who was going to auction this dinosaur was a commercial collector and he had a business in Florida (?). He, even himself when to Mongolia with his partner from England.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       The same time this case was going on, the homeland security were able to seize like five more Mongolian dinosaurs from this American Citizen. Then seventeen more from his partner in Britain.

Sandi:                       In Britain.

Bolor:                       Yeah.

Sandi:                       So, that’s terrific. You really got the ball rolling here. You were, I guess that was a wonderful coincidence that you happened to be in a New York Deli at the same time that

Bolor:                       Yeah.

Sandi:                       That report was on the television about this. I’m curious, Bolor, do you feel good about the next generation of paleontologists in Mongolia? Do you think all your work and getting involved with youngsters and having summer expeditions is paying off? Are there more Bolor(s) in Mongolia than there were when you were growing up?

Bolor:                       I think the thing is, there’s so much to do. That’s the thing our institute is really trying to do. What it is, I say, we have very few paleontologists in Mongolia. Today. It’s really needs to expose young people to paleontology.

Sandi:                       How do you do that?

Bolor:                       Museum is really obvious thing. First of all that you can have a display of dinosaurs but the same time you really need to have. You know, here, like Natural History Museum. So, any Natural History Museum in Western Countries, they have educational programs for kids in schools and family. Even grownups and teach them about dinosaurs. We don’t have such system yet.

Sandi:                       But you’re working on it.

Bolor:                       We’re working on it. Even books.

Sandi:                       How often do you go back and forth to Mongolia? You know live

Bolor:                       Every summer.

Sandi:                       And in the summertime you’re going back on expeditions?

Bolor:                       Yeah. Yes. The thing about that young generation; our institute have Master’s tuition award. So far we have given five-six students.

Sandi:                       You paid for their education?

Bolor:                       Yeah. Master’s tuition in Mongolia.

Sandi:                       Master’s tuition

Bolor:                       Encouraging them to go for paleontology.

Sandi:                       To pursue higher education.

Bolor:                       Yeah.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       The thing is, to become a paleontologist you being geologist really helps and also biologist.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Bolor:                       We were supporting geology students mostly. We had two students come to States. With our institute. Museum of the Rockies, actually, really helped us to stand on our feet. Especially Dr. Jack Horner who is a dinosaur specialist in Museum of the Rockies. He really believes that Mongolians should be working on their own fossils. They should have their own next generation of people.

Sandi:                       Of course.

Bolor:                       That. He really helped up to achieve our dream. We were able to bring two students to Montana State University. One is actually doing PhD on Paleontology now.

Sandi:                       And then will go back home.

Bolor:                       Will go back to home. Hopefully next year. He’s finishing up.

Sandi:                       So, you work on your institute from New York and then every summer you go home and you go on expeditions and you bring children with you. You’re just doing this wonderful work, Bolor. It was just a pleasure to meet you and hear all about you. It’s very exciting. What did I know from Mongolian dinosaurs and I think it’s terrific what you’re doing. We’re out of time.

Bolor:                       Thank you

Sandi:                       I want to thank you for having a conversation with me. It was really terrific.

Bolor:                       Yes. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Sandi:                       My pleasure.

Bolor:                       Join us for another edition of Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein.

 

Chad Dougatz
Chad Dougatz
Chad Dougatz brings more than 20 years of radio and media experience to the show. Before working with Sandi Klein, Chad was a Senior Producer on numerous nationally syndicated radio programs, including The Rosie O’Donnell Show, The Governor David Paterson Show, and Mornings on Air America. Chad is also the owner of The Hangar Studios, an NYC audio production company, where he provides multi-media marketing and production solutions for authors, small businesses, and entrepreneurs.
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