NIAMEY, NIGER – In secret patches south of the middle of the desert, sand blankets hide 20 tons of dinosaur bones. There are flying reptiles. An armored dog-like creature. Eleven species not yet recognized – all have long necks. Scientists concluded that they roamed the desert when it was still green, 200 million years ago. This is one of the largest excavation caches in Africa, and it is a prehistoric cemetery that sparked dreams of a world-class exhibit in Niger. A rare find is subject to loot and collapsing dunes. But excavations must wait while the nation faces a second wave of Coronavirus at the head of the escalating Islamist insurgencies. “This is our cultural identity,” said Bobby Adamu, an archaeologist at the Institute for Research in the Humanities in the capital, Niamey, who helped reveal the distance. “But saving lives comes first.” Niger, which is about twice the size of France and two-thirds the size of the Sahara, has long boasted of dinosaur riches. Countless bones travel through the sand. Paleontologists face a grueling journey across the lands of bandits to reach what researchers call the continent’s most diverse mix of extinct giants. Throughout history, foreign explorers have received the most glory for these skeletons. Even today, the nation’s dinosaurs tend to go to Europe or North America – for practical and frustrating reasons. Richer countries offer rooms that can be temperature controlled to prevent the bones from collapsing. Niger’s largest museum of termites. Leaders were striving to revive that cultural infrastructure before the outbreak. They wanted a permanent home for discoveries scattered elsewhere. “We need to do this so that everything stolen from us can be returned,” said Mohamedou Omodou, head of the office of the President of Niger. Sereno and his team discovered a sailing dinosaur called Ouranosaurus in Niger in 2018. (Matthew Irving) Local scientists collaborated with a prominent University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno, whose expeditions in Niger added nine species to the world’s dinosaur record. . A joint project arose: two new museums – one in the capital, the other in the desert region of Agadez. It included the finds by Sereno, now kept in his laboratory in Chicago, as well as what the next generation of adventurers are discovering in Niger. “The best display of priceless samples in any country,” said Sereno. “Everyone knows where they are. These are famous. They have become treasures.” Niger has already allocated land. The project – to be called NigerHeritage – is estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars. Officials said global donors like the World Bank had shown interest. But plans were stalled when the pandemic broke out, and now there are 20 tons of bones in the middle of the desert. An accidental discovery: Sereno clears sand from a skull cap, part of a tomb around 8,000 years old. He said that the bones belong to people who lived in the desert when they were green. (Matthew Irving) The Sereno team found 20 tons of dinosaur bones in Agadez, Niger, during a series of trips in 2018 and 2019. (Matthew Irving) Left: Sereno cleans sand from a skull cap, part of an 8,000-year-old tomb. He said that the bones belong to people who lived in the desert when they were green. (Matthew Irving) Right: The Sereno team found 20 tons of dinosaur bones in the Agadez region of Niger during a series of trips in 2018 and 2019 (Matthew Irving) The story of the Niger dinosaur began in another hidden tomb. In the early 1960s, prospectors from the French Atomic Energy Agency were searching for uranium in the wilds of Tenerife when they stumbled upon a massive bluish and stone object. French paleontologist Philippe Takee soon confirmed that the backbones of a dinosaur. After graduating from school at age 24, he did not embark on a fossil expedition. Within days of joining the prospectors, he was dusting off a new species. Tackett wrote of the experience in his 1994 diary: “There is a place on this earth where, once you jump out of your car, you risk suddenly finding yourself in front of a nose with a dinosaur.” The French team obtained government permission to dig, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that no laws prevented strangers from taking Nigerian dinosaurs. She landed some bones with private collectors in the United States, France, and Italy. Others ended up in the British Museum in London. A member of the Sereno team cleans rocks from a 60-foot-tall dinosaur. (Matthew Irving) After studying in France, Takee brought the Tenerife fossils back to Niamey, where they remained in wooden boxes at the National Museum. The French work provided a roadmap for the Sereno crew. Scientists and armed bodyguards in Land Rover cars follow advice from locals to open new horizons: this way for big teeth. Scientists classified hundreds of bones in Agadez during a series of flights in 2018 and 2019, sweeping nearly 1,000 miles. A man led them on a motorcycle to a huge spinosaurus, or “spine lizard.” “It’s everything, everywhere in Niger,” said Sereno. “Actually, that’s way too much.” Sites of fossil discoveries Notable excavation sites in Niger Source: Paleobiology Database Fossil Discovery Sites Notable fossil sites in Niger Source: Paleobiology Database Paleontology Sites Notable excavation sites in Niger Source: Paleobiology Database The samples were excavated for months. They have cut geological periods: dinosaurs, mammals, and even humans. A single Neolithic woman was still wearing an ivory bracelet. (The 11 new dinosaur species must be reviewed before receiving the names.) The Sereno team has crafted temporary covers for each skeleton in plaster. They were combing sand over the summit to hide it. They hoped the passers-by would have mistaken for anything that was manifested in the rocks. It is not unusual for paleontologists to re-bury pit sites before returning with the movers. But the epidemic halted this process for at least a year. Niger sent soldiers to guard the area from looting. Bandits are known to roam these parts, while extremist groups typically operate hundreds of miles south. Nomads also watch out for dinosaurs, and periodically text messages to Sereno with updates. So far, no one has reported any sand theft or avalanche. “I crossed my fingers that the God of Wind is on my side, and in a year, things will look the same,” said Sereno. “We can’t keep it that way,” the Sereno team collects surface dinosaur fragments. (Matthew Irving) Dinosaur conservation is a heavy burden on one of the poorest countries on Earth. The pandemic makes it more difficult. The leaders grapple with the most urgent matters. Niger has recorded record levels of coronavirus cases and deaths over the past two months. (The nation has recorded more than 4,656 infections and 167 deaths since the start of the epidemic.) During the same period, attacks by extremist groups increased. Islamic State militants carried out the most violent ambush in years on January 2, killing at least 100 people in two villages in the southwest. The number of Nigerians who died in such violence more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, according to the Armed Conflict and Events Location Data Project. Since extremists invaded neighboring Mali nearly a decade ago, groups loyal to al Qaeda and the Islamic State have exploited a sense of hopelessness to grow their ranks across West Africa. “We need education, services and jobs that support young people,” said Moulay Hassan, who leads the violent extremism program at the National Center for Strategic and Security Studies in Niamey. “In that sense, tourism and dinosaurs could be wonderful for Niger.” The resolve for this vision is alive, if shaken, in the National Museum in Niamey. Fragments of Taquet’s early discoveries are found on the tile floor in boxes marked “fragility”. Next to them sit brooms, some ropes and a toilet brush. The walls are carved with termite cracks. “We can’t keep it that way,” said Haldo Mamani, the museum’s director. Visitor traffic brought in an average of $ 370 a day. People made concrete examples of the dinosaurs Sereno discovered in the 1990s: the long-necked gobaria and the sail-powered succimimus. Now the museum is lucky to earn $ 20 on a Saturday. “The Coronavirus has hurt us badly,” Mamani said. One afternoon, the director spoke of his concerns to archaeologist Adamu, whose office shares the reasons. They talked about Taquet’s famous missions and how they lured a wave of explorers from outside. A faded map of Niger pinned down the wall. Outsiders were enjoying a lot of praise after the skydiving. The director said half jokingly. He grinned, Adam bitten his tongue. Paleontologists usually travel in Agadez after dawn and near dusk with the help of GPS and local guides. (Matthew Irving) Veteran Sahara rover knows what’s still out there. On a trip with Sereno, he went out to take a rest in the bathroom and saw a 10,000-year-old human skull. Mamani and Amado, old friends, talked about reclaiming their national heritage. Vaccines will come. Travel restrictions will be eased. They had hoped that the Coronavirus would fade away. “Dinosaurs are more expensive than uranium or oil or anything like that,” Adamo said. “They belong here.” It can deal with usual threats. Since looters ambushed his convoy in 2008, the fossil finder has not looked without a gun. Controllable risks. An invaluable reward. Smiles at the prospect: Niger’s dinosaurs – finally at home. Issa Lee Hamidou contributed to this report. Read more: The pandemic has dealt a blow to global trade and revives an old dream: self-reliance The 76-year-old family’s quest for truth and justice for the West African soldiers who fought for France in World War II.