Fyodor Shidlovskiy and Mike Triebold don't know each other from a hole in the ground, but they share an undying passion for long-dead and buried beasts.
Each summer Shidlovskiy mounts a safari of men, buses, trucks, amphibious vehicles, planes, helicopters, and riverboats and ventures onto the tundra of northeastern Siberia. In the extended Arctic daylight, he and his team spend weeks at a stretch recovering the bones and tusks of woolly mammoths, the lumbering precursors of today's elephants that until about 10,000 years ago wandered the bitterly cold steppes alongside our own fur-clad ancestors.
The best of his finds he restores (with auto body filler and varnish) and assembles into complete skeletons. Bones and tusks of lesser quality he has carved into chess sets and knickknacks. The least valuable are ground into powder for use in traditional Chinese cures. Eventually everything is sold, mostly in Hong Kong and the United States.
Shidlovskiy (Fyodor to his friends, and everyone quickly becomes a friend of this joyful, effusive Russian) invited photographer Lynn Johnson and me to join him on an expedition. It was to be more than your run-of-the-mill Siberian mammoth quest, he promised: A hunter had tipped him to the whereabouts of an intact baby mammoth skeleton, the rarest of the rare, and he'd love to have us come along to record what promised to be an important find. Hours before dawn on a balmy August morning, we met Fyodor outside his tony, pink-brick apartment building in Moscow and prepared to set out on his latest escapade.
Two months earlier and halfway around the globe, Mike Triebold kissed his wife, J. J., goodbye at their custom-built log house in the shadow of Colorado's Pikes Peak, hopped into a convoy of four-wheel drives, and with four of his guys headed north. They were bound for the sleepy cow town of Roundup, Montana, where I would meet them. Triebold, too, was anticipating something extremely rare—a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex. Walter Stein, Triebold's field manager, had recently discovered a single rib poking out of concrete-hard sandstone on private land Triebold had leased for fossil collecting. The prospect of connecting that bone to the rest of a young T. rex had Triebold wired and dragging heavily on his Kools.
For Shidlovskiy and Triebold, hunting down and digging up the extremely dead is life's great joy. Besides the thrill of discovery, old bones provide them with a comfortable livelihood. In fact—with the going price for a nicely turned out T. rex pegged well into the millions, and a fully articulated mammoth selling for a quarter million or more—very comfortable.
Shidlovskiy and Triebold are members of a small fraternity of freewheeling men (almost exclusively) who excavate fossils and sell them for profit. I spent months tracking commercial fossil dealers and investigating their trade, not just in Siberia and Colorado, but also in Morocco, northeastern China, Montana, and the Dakotas. I discovered that some dealers are careful collectors and honest businessmen; others are disreputable and brutish, ripping bones from national parks and other protected lands and selling them for a quick buck. Still others, particularly in developing countries such as China and Morocco, are peasants striving to ease their painful lives with whatever they can claw, quite literally, from the earth around them.