In 2017, an article in the Times of London about wildlife smuggler Jeffrey Lendrum caught the eye of journalist Joshua Hammer. Lendrum had made a fortune stealing and selling falcon eggs. Hammer (The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu) wanted to learn more; the resulting book, The Falcon Thief (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 2020), is a tale of international intrigue, the lucrative market for birds of prey, and the efforts to protect avian species that had been driven to the brink of extinction.
Who are the main players in your story?
Jeffrey Lendrum is this bizarre career criminal who traveled to remote corners of the planet stealing the eggs of rare birds of prey and selling them to sheikhs and other wealthy falcon enthusiasts in the United Arab Emirates. He went from being a master criminal to a reckless obsessive who couldn’t quit and got deeper and deeper into trouble. Before 2010, he’d been caught a few times, but he always managed to get away with a slap on the wrist. Andy McWilliam is a foil for Lendrum. He’s the Liverpool policeman who plays a key role in tracking him down and putting him in jail for the first time. McWilliam was Britain’s foremost expert on bird crime, so he was brought in on the case and made Lendrum a marked man. Lendrum tried to return to criminality when he got out of prison, but because of McWilliam he couldn’t use the incognito approach he had before.
Falcon egg stealing isn’t the first transgression that springs to mind as a high-stakes crime. What are the ramifications?
The peregrine falcon almost went extinct in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of the unrestricted use of the pesticide DDT. Around 95% of the peregrine falcon population was wiped out before people acted. The threat has waned a bit, but they’re still granted protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Lendrum was going into the arctic and stealing a huge number of eggs. This kind of activity, were it not punished, would encourage others to the same thing. In comparison to poaching, the criminal justice system doesn’t look at crimes like this the same way, and perhaps that’s legitimate. These birds are no longer on the verge of extinction. But the criminal justice system and society have to recognize that if there are no restraints, no punishment set forth in the criminal code for the unrestrained plundering of these animals from the wild, they will be wiped out.
What do you hope to convey with this book?
I want people to come away with a sense of respect and amazement for nature and the visceral disgust of going into these places of pristine beauty and carrying out a brutal act. We’re not talking about murder here, but we are talking about a fairly brutal impingement on nature. I also want people to look at the work of unsung police officers like McWilliam, who was mocked and scorned a bit for going into this arcane and not very well-respected line of work, but he gained the respect of his colleagues and became the foremost protector of animals in the U.K. There’s something noble about that.