Making a Dinosaur Website for Mongolian Nomads
It was twilight, warm and mosquito-filled, in the Uintah basin near the Colorado border of Utah. I was working on a website for Dinosaur National Monument and bunking in the park’s employee housing, remembering what the 90s felt like: slow internet, neighbors who knock on your door to invite you to barbecues, the incredible virtues of cargo pants.
The woman I was waiting to meet emerged from the Visitor’s Center parking lot. She was on vacation with her family, but I’d convinced her to sneak away from the campfire for a precious hour. Her name was Bolortsetseg Minjin, and she was (and still is) one of the most well-respected paleontologists of our time. Originally from northern Mongolia, she now lives in New York, researches dinosaurs for the American Museum of Natural History across the street from Central Park, and has been honored as a National Geographic Explorer and WINGS Worldquest fellow.
But that evening, I was the honored one. She’d agreed to let me interview her for my blog. We discussed a wide range of topics, from the action-packed 1920s Mongolian expedition of Roy Chapman Andrews (the guy Indiana Jones was based on), to the modern problems of fossil poaching and her work bringing stolen dinosaur skeletons home to Mongolia, to her plan of driving a mobile tourbus-turned-museum out to the Gobi desert so that kids who live near one of the most famous fossil beds in paleontological history can finally learn about the dinosaurs that once lived in their backyards.
There’s a fossil quarry that’s famous among paleontologists for being the first place in the world where dinosaur nests were found.
The biggest surprise–in case the title didn’t give it away–was on the topic of the web. Mongolia is becoming more connected every day, and even the nomads in the Gobi have smart phones and internet access. So you’d think, like the rest of us, they could learn anything they want to about dinosaurs. The only problem is content: none of the well-executed dinosaur websites focus on Mongolian species, and none of them are available in the Mongolian language.
As a professional content specialist, this revelation gave me an itch I was eager to scratch. A few months later, I got the chance. I was freelancing at AKQA New York when Bolortsetseg invited me to dinner in Koreatown. Over the most incredible bowl of soup I’ve had in my life, she proposed an idea for a website.
There’s a fossil quarry that’s famous among paleontologists for being the first place in the world where dinosaur nests were found. Roy Chapman Andrews himself named it “The Flaming Cliffs,” but to the Mongolian people it will always be known as Bayanzag. Personally, I love the way Bayanzag rolls off the tongue, so I picked up URLs for both names and got started on a website that would introduce the dinosaurs discovered there, the history of the locale and the conservation issues it faces, while giving both tourists and locals a better understanding of the laws regarding any fossils they might find there, and advocating against fossil poaching, an increasing concern in rural areas worldwide.
Most of the people who live near Bayanzag are nomadic. They live in felt-and-wood gers and learn to ride horses before they learn to walk. They’re also eager to learn about the natural history of their home, even though some of the kids, Bolortsetseg told me, were convinced that dinosaurs were mythological animals until she got there.
Our first iteration of the website is already up–but we need funding to finish it. This is a pro bono project for me, but I can’t in good conscience ask a translator or paleoartist to work for free, so we’re including those costs in an Indiegogo campaign that launched this week. It’s also covering an epic science outreach and fossil conservation expedition to three major regions of Mongolia: Ulaanbaatar, the Gobi desert, and western Mongolia.
As a lifelong dinosaur fan, this is the adventure of a lifetime, and as a web professional, I can’t wait to get user feedback from someone whose commute is on horseback. The people it will mean the most to, however, are those living in the communities near Bayanzag. Bolortsetseg’s big dream is to build a permanent natural history museum there to serve both the dinosaurs–with a research lab and year-round staff–and the people who live nearby. Just like Dinosaur National Monument has become a vital part of the local economy of Vernal, Utah, this museum will be a big draw for Mongolia’s growing tourism industry. More importantly, it will be a place where those who call Bayanzag home can gather, learn, and become informed stewards of their environment.
The website was only the first step.
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Thea Boodhoo is a science advocate and creative professional. She is the founder of @Create4Science.
By the way, if you’d like to see Bayanzag for yourself, Thea and Bolortsetseg’s Indiegogo campaign is offering a trip there as one of many awesome dinosaur-themed perks.