IT sounds far fetched – an illegal trade in dinosaurs worth tens of millions of pounds.
But this storyline from the new Jurassic World movie pays homage to a real life roaring black market which sees fossil hunters flog their prehistoric wares, often smuggling them “like drugs”.
While much of the trade is legal, a lot is not.
That’s what Con Air star Cage discovered to his cost when he had to return a rare Tyrannosaurus bataar skull to Mongolia seven years ago, because it had been sold illegally.
Several dinosaur hunters have gone to prison, but that hasn’t slowed the trade.
Teams of experts hunt for fossils across the world, hoping to earn a huge pay day if they find a relatively intact skeleton – or, even better, the remains of a T-Rex.
History’s most dangerous predator is highly sought after, with one set of remains selling for a world record price of £24.6million in October 2020.
Last month the skeleton of a velociraptor-type killer called Deinonychus antirrhopus sold for almost £10million to an anonymous bidder.
Smaller finds are up for sale on internet sites like eBay, where teeth and skulls are auctioned off.
Professor Steve Brusatte, a palaeontologist at Edinburgh University who was a consultant on Jurassic World: Dominion tells The Sun: “There is both a legal trade and illegal trade in dinosaur bones.
“One of the closest cousins of velociraptor went up for auction a few weeks ago. It got over $12million dollars even though it is half a skeleton at best.
“In America, whoever owns the land has the right to what is on there, so it is legal to sell.”
But he warns there is a disturbing network of fossil traders whose tendrils stretch far and wide.
It’s very secretive. It’s on the level of drugs. We don’t know much about it, it is so murky, it is so dark
Steve reveals: “There is a lot of illegal collecting and sale of fossils from other countries, especially Mongolia and China.
“There are strict laws in those countries. You cannot just dig up dinosaur bones and sell them.
“But they do appear on the black market. It’s very secretive. It’s on the level of drugs.
“We don’t know much about it, it is so murky, it is so dark. There are beautiful fossils that disappear.”
Movie star collectors
Both DiCaprio and Cage – said to be avid collectors – had wanted a rare Tyrannosaurus bataar skull when it came up for auction in 2007.
Cage won with an £185,000 bid, but when it was proven to have come from Mongolia he had to hand it over to the authorities.
Gladiator star Russell Crowe bought a Mosasaur skull, quite legitimately, from DiCaprio during a drunken evening before selling it off at auction in 2018.
It’s believed that hundreds of skeletons have been illicitly excavated in Mongolia, which has an abundance of fossils in the Gobi desert from the period before dinosaurs were wiped out 66 million years ago.
One, a very rare Halszkaraptor, passed through Britain before eventually being returned to Mongolia.
Prosecutions are unusual and there are limited resources to properly investigate the gangs involved.
Ten years ago US federal agents raided the home of Eric Prokopi with a warrant to search for smuggled dinosaur fossils.
It was Florida man Prokopi who had sourced the the skull from Mongolia that would ultimately be bought by Cage at auction.
The commercial trader organised for fossils, including a Tyrannosaurus skeleton, to be transported from the Asian country via Britain to the United States.
The relative of the T-Rex was going to be sold for a million dollars in New York, but the sale didn’t go through due to suspicions about its origin.
Prosecutors called Prokopi a “one-man black market” and he spent three months in prison.
Meanwhile well-known American amateur palaeontologist Nathan Murphy was sentenced to three years on probation in 2009 for stealing 13 dinosaur bones from central Montana.
Digging up a precious relic isn’t as easy as it sounds.
First you need to locate these buried treasures, which requires expertise, and then you need a team of experienced people to carefully remove the bones without damaging any of them.
It takes around 15,000 hours to excavate an elephant-sized dinosaur and get it ready for display.
For that reason dinosaur hunters make sure they have a clear contract before they start digging on anyone’s land.
If it is a legal dig, a percentage of the final sale price will be guaranteed to the land owner.
With such fortunes available for selling old bones, one can only imagine what would happen if the science fiction of Jurassic Park ever became science fact.
Professor Brusatte reckons a dinosaur version of Tiger King would be inevitable.
He comments: “You would have T-Rex King. If we had cloned dinosaurs there would be so much illegal activity.”