Meet the ‘Pablo Escobar of the Falcon Egg Trade’

THE FALCON THIEF
A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird
By Joshua Hammer

It’s not easy to get into the mind of a notorious wild-bird trafficker — the kind of person who smuggles fertile peregrine falcon eggs by strapping them to his body, or dangles from a helicopter 700 feet over the sea so that he can skim an Arctic cliff face to raid white gyrfalcon nests.

But Joshua Hammer’s gripping “The Falcon Thief” plunges us into the psyche of the wildlife thief and smuggler Jeffrey Lendrum. Lendrum is a villain who risks death, is repeatedly fined, serves prison time and uses all of his mental, physical and financial resources in pursuit of what the British ornithologist Tim Birkhead calls “the most perfect thing” — the egg — to sell to wealthy clients in the Middle East. With the instinct of a hunter himself, Hammer tracks Lendrum’s nefarious career, structuring the story with elegant precision.

The journey spans Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park, the Persian Gulf, Patagonia and the Inuit territory of northern Quebec. Hammer weaves in historical contexts of African decolonization and Middle Eastern falcon racing with a light touch, but the central mission remains his search for the answer to the question: Why does Lendrum do it? It isn’t just about the money for him.

The clue to Lendrum’s mentality lies, of course, with his father and his boyhood in British Rhodesia in the 1970s. As a child he might have been guided toward putting his skills to scientific use; instead, his father helped him trick the Rhodesian Ornithological Society into sharing the breeding sites of over 30 species of raptors across the “granite domes” of Matobo, “huge rolling rock slabs known as whalebacks.” Hammer’s depiction of the father and son’s sabotage of the African black eagle conservation project is extremely moving.

The problem with a book that focuses on a man who uploads videos of himself to YouTube taunting an Egyptian cobra, or who is accused of turning up the heat on an incubator full of live eggs to destroy evidence, is that it is impossible to feel empathy for Lendrum. What emerges from a series of shady, fraudulent activities is the profile of a blackhearted con man, a Dirty John of the bird world — “the Pablo Escobar of the falcon egg trade,” as some call him.

Hammer acknowledges that Lendrum’s unappealing sense of entitlement and belief “that it was his right to go into the game reserves and help himself” likely derives from growing up white and privileged in colonial Rhodesia. He continually asserts that Lendrum is charming, “personable and likable,” but he never comes across that way. Following the inventory of awful deeds, the reader is left appalled. Thankfully there is a hero to balance out Lendrum’s baddie factor, Detective Andy McWilliam of the United Kingdom’s National Wildlife Crime Unit. The suspense and drama leading up to Lendrum’s ultimate undoing are masterfully constructed and the outcome satisfying. According to Hammer, to this day, Lendrum insists his heists were “well-meaning” rescue missions meant to protect the wildlife he supposedly loved.

Lendrum’s own demons run deeper than money or family, Hammer shows. They spiral into everything that is wrong with humanity’s relationship with the natural world: ownership, possession, domination, an endless risk-seeking, thrill-hunting death drive and profound betrayal.