Due to the pandemic, a vast deposit of fossils in the Sahara desert has become stranded, and it includes numerous dinosaur remains.

In secret patches of the south-central Sahara, blankets of sand hide 20 tons of dinosaur bones.

There are flying reptiles. A creature that resembles an armored dog. Eleven species yet to be identified — all with long necks. They roamed the desert when it was still green, scientists concluded, as far back as 200 million years ago.

Niger, about twice the size of France and two-thirds desert, has long boasted dinosaur riches. Countless bones poke through the sand. Paleontologists face a sweltering trek through bandit territory to reach what researchers call the continent’s most diverse mix of extinct giants.

Leaders were striving to revive that cultural infrastructure before the pandemic struck. They wanted a lasting home for finds that have scattered elsewhere.

“We need to make it so that everything that has been taken from us can be returned,” said Mahamadou Ouhoumoudou, chief of staff to the president of Niger.

Sereno and his team uncover a sail-backed dinosaur called an ouranosaurus in Niger in 2018. (Matthew Irving)

Local scientists teamed up with prominent University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno, whose decades of expeditions in Niger have added nine species to the world’s dinosaur record.

“The best place for priceless specimens in any country is on display,” Sereno said, speaking generally. “Everyone knows where they are. They are famous. They become treasures.”

Niger has already earmarked the land. The project — to be called NigerHeritage — is estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars. Global donors such as the World Bank expressed interest, officials said.

But plans froze when the pandemic erupted, and now 20 tons of bone sit in the middle of the Sahara.

An accidental discovery

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LEFT: Sereno brushes sand off a skull cap, part of a burial some 8,000 years old. The bones belonged to people who lived in the Sahara when it was green, he said. (Matthew Irving) RIGHT: Sereno’s team found 20 tons of dinosaur bones in Niger’s Agadez region over a series of trips in 2018 and 2019. (Matthew Irving)

Niger’s dinosaur story began with another hidden graveyard.

In the early 1960s, prospectors from France’s atomic energy agency were digging for uranium in the Ténéré wilds when they stumbled upon something huge, bluish and stony.

“There is a place on this Earth where, simply by hopping out of your car, you risk suddenly finding yourself nose to nose with a dinosaur,” Taquet wrote of the experience in his 1994 memoir.

The French team received government permission to dig, but no laws stopped outsiders from taking Niger’s dinosaurs until the late 1980s. Some bones landed with private collectors in the United States, France and Italy. Others ended up in the British Museum in London.

A member of Sereno’s team cleans rock from a 60-foot dinosaur. (Matthew Irving)

After he studied them in France, Taquet returned the Ténéré fossils to Niamey, where they remain in wooden crates at the National Museum.

The Frenchman’s work provided a road map for Sereno’s crew. The scientists and armed bodyguards in Land Rovers follow tips from locals to break new ground: This way for big teeth.

The scientists catalogued hundreds of bones in Agadez during a series of trips in 2018 and 2019, sweeping over roughly 1,000 miles. A man on a moped led them to a hulking spinosaurus, or “spine lizard.”

“It’s everything, everywhere in Niger,” Sereno said. “In fact, it’s too much.”

Excavating the specimens took months. They cut across geological periods: dinosaurs, mammals, even humans. One Neolithic woman still wore an ivory bangle. (The 11 new dinosaur species must be peer-reviewed before receiving names.)

Sereno’s team crafted temporary coverings for each skeleton out of plaster. They brushed sand over the top to hide them. Passersby, they hoped, would mistake anything jutting up for rocks.

It’s not unusual for paleontologists to rebury dig sites before returning with movers. The pandemic, however, has stalled that process for at least a year.

So far, no one has reported a theft or sand avalanche.

“I have my fingers crossed that the wind god is on my side,” Sereno said, “and things will look the same in a year.”

‘We can’t keep them like this’

Sereno’s team collects the surface fragments of a dinosaur. (Matthew Irving)

Preserving dinosaurs is a hefty burden for one of the poorest countries on Earth. The pandemic makes it harder. Leaders are grappling with more-urgent matters.

Niger hit its record highs of coronavirus cases and deaths over the past two months. (The nation has recorded more than 4,656 infections and 167 fatalities since the pandemic began.)

On a recent afternoon, the director spoke of his concerns to Adamou, the archaeologist, whose office shares the grounds.

Paleontologists in Agadez usually travel after dawn and near dusk with the help of a GPS device and local guides. (Matthew Irving)

The veteran Sahara rover knows what’s still out there. On a trip with Sereno, he walked off to take a bathroom break and spotted a 10,000-year-old human skull.

Mamane and Amadou, old friends, spoke of reclaiming their national inheritance. Vaccines would come. Travel restrictions would ease. The coronavirus would wane, they hoped.

Manageable risk. Invaluable reward.

He grins at the possibility: Niger’s dinosaurs — finally at home.

Issa Ly Hamidou contributed to this report.

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