Dangerously desirable: the white-morph gyr falcon commands sky-high prices

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird Joshua Hammer

Simon & Schuster, pp.336, £18.99

The art of falconry is more than 3,000 years old and possibly as popular now as at any time. Its devotees argue that in a pure form it is a deeply honourable tradition, requiring superhuman patience to coax a magnificent predator to hunt at the owner’s behest. It is a relationship, they would also claim, of mutual understanding and partnership between hawk and human. That’s the positive version.

At its most degraded, falconry seems to be a psychopathological obsession, rooted in a fetish for control over beautiful raptors, which sometimes drives practitioners to morally dubious, even illegal, behaviour. The American journalist Joshua Hammer has written a revealing portrait of the sport that is located at a point where these two versions intersect.

The book’s anti-hero is a complex, troubling and seemingly unrepentant figure called Jeffrey Lendrum, who grew up in white Rhodesia. There he became a passionate naturalist, placing his obvious physical courage and considerable knowledge at the service of research projects to protect rare birds of prey in Zimbabwe’s national parks. One of the specialities of this brave young man was to abseil down crags to check otherwise inaccessible eagle nests. However, these formative episodes were shared with Lendrum’s father, Adrian, whose shadowy role in the son’s descent into criminality seems to be hinted at by Hammer.

Gradually it dawned on friends and colleagues that father and son were not just collaborators in the conservation work. They were stealing rare eagle and owl eggs, among others, and threatening the very birds they purported to love. It led directly to the first of Lendrum’s court appearances for wildlife crime, which also seemed to be the moment that he realised the financial potential in the illegal sale of rare birds of prey.

Like a well-schooled crime reporter Hammer investigates and describes Lendrum’s 35-year career as an egg thief. He does a fine job of piecing together the shadow life, and he has also travelled the world, because his subject is a criminal of global aspirations. Yet the terminal destination for Lendrum’s travels was always Dubai, whose sheikhs are among the world’s wealthiest and, it would appear, the most unscrupulous consumers of hunting birds.

The sine qua non for these oil magnates is a white-morph gyr falcon, the largest falcon in the world, said to reach prices of $400,000 in some exalted quarters. The problem is that for decades there has been an international restriction on trade in the species. Smuggling them is a complex logistical challenge, given that the wild population of gyr falcons lives in the Arctic belt across Canada, Greenland and Russia. Even peregrines, which are another key desideratum for Middle Eastern falconers, are largely found in northern latitudes, including Britain.

To move wild, adult, highly strung birds through airports or border controls without detection is almost impossible, so Lendrum developed a strategy of carrying only the falcon eggs in concealed pockets about his person. He timed the smuggling trips so that the embryos remained viable and could hatch into lucrative young birds on arrival.

To do this he had to climb to nests in Greenland or Chile, or the steep-sided gorges of the Rhondda Valley, and then fly to Dubai within hours of stealing the eggs. It sounds logistically impressive and full of derring-do. But the final image we get of this master criminal is much more prosaic and perhaps sadder even than Hammer himself acknowledges (in the course of assembling his story the author has been clearly touched by Lendrum’s undoubted charisma and persuasive charm).

In the end, Hammer cannot indicate the full extent of his subject’s criminal practice. But the man has now been charged and found guilty five times on four continents, has served two spells in British prisons and has absconded from a seven-year sentence in Brazil. Money was almost certainly the primary motive for Lendrum; yet in the concluding pages we meet a man who is unemployed and homeless, and whose criminality has damaged most of his close relationships. There is precious little sign of financial profit, let alone happiness.

One caveat about this absorbing, entertaining and well-written book: Hammer’s grasp of ornithology is shaky. There is no such species as black pelican; lapwings don’t dive for fish, they eat invertebrates; harrier hawks don’t occur in Britain; a ‘lesser gull’ is really a lesser black-backed gull; they are — oddly perhaps — called Canada geese, not ‘Canadian geese’; and lesser yellowlegs are not woodland birds but waders.

Most erroneous of all is what Hammer chooses to call ‘the fragile, symbiotic relationship between man and the wild’.  Almost every falconer we meet in this book suggests that no such relationship exists.

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