Humans have a special place in their hearts for megafauna, alive or extinct. Zoogoers line up for elephant and tiger exhibits, and millions flock to the latest Jurassic Park installments. Sometimes, though, people get a little too obsessed with these creatures and find themselves on the wrong side of the law. That’s when there’s a story to tell.
Enter New Yorker staff writer Paige Williams and her compelling new book about fossil collectors, The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy ($15; Hachette). Williams focuses her narrative on one fossil fanatic, Eric Prokopi, an entrepreneur who makes a living finding, prepping, and selling fossils to collectors and museums. To increase his cash flow, Prokopi procures the bones of a Tarbosaurus bataar (basically, Asia’s T. rex) from the Gobi Desert and auctions them in the United States. A knotty legal battle ensues, involving, as Williams writes, “collectors, smuggling, marriage, democracy, poverty, artistry, museums, mining, Hollywood, Russia, China, criminal justice, presidential politics, explorers, Mongolian culture, the auction industry, and the history of science.”
It’s easy to be skeptical of dustcover comparisons to The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. While Williams’s book doesn’t quite belong in that category of classic nonfiction, it’s an absorbing dive into a community just as insular and fascinating as rare-flower collectors. The Dinosaur Artist begins with an introduction to Prokopi, its obsessive main character. As a boy, he learned to dive in the town of Land O’ Lakes, Florida, returning to shore with treasure from another age. His parents’ house was soon filled with prehistoric souvenirs from the area’s rivers and fields. Before graduating from college, Prokopi started trading shark teeth and other specimens, naming his business Florida Fossils. At one point, he imagines what he would tell his future children about how he constructed these pieces of natural history. “To him, self-referential talk sounded like showing off,” Williams writes. “But, if asked, he would explain how he had prepared the bones before reassembling and mounting them like a 3D puzzle, standing the creature on its feet again for the first time since it last breathed.”
Williams wastes no time plunging the reader into Prokopi’s bizarre world. She makes Tucson mineral shows and Mongolian history—dating back to Genghis Khan—shimmer with intrigue. If she goes on tangents, they are filled with charming details and absorbing trivia. We meet a pipe insulator who is also a Smithsonian-recognized fossil hunter, a supplier with a garage full of dinosaurs, and a Mongolian paleontologist named Bolortsetseg Minjin who is intent on protecting the Gobi Desert from poachers. Turns out, Bolortsetseg’s concern is warranted. High-end auction houses have illegally taken Mongolian fossils since the 1990s, attracting wealthy customers looking for a striking living-room piece. In fact, none other than Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio waged a bidding war for one of Prokopi’s T. bataar skulls. (Cage won, paying $276,000 for the 67 million-year-old specimen.)
Things get really messy when Prokopi unwittingly incites an international conflict by ordering T. bataar bones from a supplier in Mongolia to sell to this fossil market. Williams deftly describes the politics surrounding fossil removal there and the country’s complicated relationship with the United States. It’s not only a legal issue, we learn: Prokopi has gotten caught up in something of a proxy for asserting the country’s independence by claiming Mongolia’s property.
As the story crescendoed with these new details, I felt conflicting sympathies. At times, Prokopi seemed like an oblivious casualty of a political debacle. Fossil sellers have ignored laws surrounding the international transportation of specimens before to no consequence—this was the first time the government of Mongolia claimed dinosaur bones from an auction house. On the other hand, Prokopi wasn’t in the dinosaur-selling game purely because of his love of natural history. Selling the T. bataar bones would have provided a much-needed windfall to his family as they stacked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt and mortgage loans.
Despite all the moral ambiguity and conflict, one thing is clear: Dinosaurs capture people’s hearts. Prokopi’s livelihood blossomed out of a childhood love of the creatures. Bolortsetseg, the paleontologist, viewed the Gobi Desert’s specimens as a source of national pride. One aside describes a South Dakota town that erupted in protest in 1992 when the government impounded a T. rex skeleton nicknamed Tyrannosaurus Sue. More than anything else, Williams effectively tells the story of people living out their passions, for better or worse.
Another book released in September, Rachel Love Nuwer’s Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking ($28, De Capo), also deals with unsavory aspects of international trade. The difference: The animals aren’t extinct—yet.
Poached gives readers an up-front look at the vulnerability of endangered animals that are worth more dead than alive. Nuwer commands attention as she relays accounts pangolin scales being sold on the black market, Kenyan officials burning millions of dollars of ivory and rhino horn in attempt to discourage their trade, and a cobra’s heart being ripped out for consumption. But these anecdotes aren’t just for shock value. Nuwer also documents the political, cultural, and economic factors driving wildlife trafficking. Ivory has deep cultural significance and status in China, for example, and many in East Asia believe consuming pangolin scales has health benefits (even though supporting scientific evidence is lacking). Sometimes Nuwer gets into a little too much detail, but her takeaway is abundantly clear: This business has major consequences.
Toward the end of the book, Nuwer finds herself in a bar talking with her husband and a friend about the illegal wildlife trade. Her friend comments on the cruelty humans inflict on animals. “It sounds like you’re coming at this from an animal welfare perspective, though,” she tells him. “For me, the even more important concern here is biodiversity—of the possibility of losing species forever, just because of this trade.”
Both Nuwer and Williams show how obsession, especially when profit is involved, can be a dark force. Hopefully, by appreciating how threatened some of our favorite animals really are, we will act to protect them before elephants and pangolins join the ranks of the T. bataar.