The kingpin of the trade in rare birds has been jailed. The prize for any successor will be great.
Like the late American president Theodore Roosevelt, I’ve always been a great believer in taking an active approach to animal conservation. Indeed, the walls of my modest abode are covered with the heads of the animals that I’ve “conserved” over the years during various safaris, hunts, expeditions and other ventures into the great outdoors. So, I can do little but tip my hat to Jeffrey Lendrum, known as the “Pablo Escobar of the falcon egg trade”, who has “been jailed for three years on smuggling charges”, as John Simpson reports in The Times. Last year he was caught at Heathrow with “falcon and kestrel eggs strapped to his torso with bandages”. If hatched, “the birds would have fetched £100,000”.
Lendrum claims that he was only smuggling them to save them for humanity as their natural habitat is being destroyed. Experts dispute this, arguing the species he was stealing were not in any imminent danger. They say he was saving them for himself – or more accurately, his bank account – with many of them “thought to have been destined for clients in the Middle East, where falconry and collections of birds of prey are popular”.
Falling “fowl” of the law
This isn’t the first time Lendrum has fallen “fowl” of the law, as he “is the world’s most notorious smuggler of birds of prey”, says Jake Hulyer in the Financial Times. His life of crime began at the age of 22 when he and his father joined the local conservation group in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and got actively involved in checking birds’ nests, only later to be caught with “more than 800 blown eggs” (eggs without any chicks inside them). The pair were given suspended prison sentences and fined $2,500, but this failed to deter Lendrum from a career that has seen him “caught on five occasions, on three different continents, over a period that spans more than three decades”.
Lendrum is now behind bars, but the potential rewards mean that many are likely to follow in his footsteps. Devotees of falconry are willing to “pay dearly for rare birds”, says Joshua Hammer for Outside Online. “In Doha, Qatar, for example, a man reportedly paid $250,000 on the legal market for a pure white gyrfalcon, the world’s largest raptor and a bird so prized for its power and beauty that medieval kings used to hunt with them.” As one retired expert puts it bluntly, “if there is a $50,000 bill flying around, someone is going to try to catch it”.
Interpol estimates that the illegal wildlife trade is worth as much as $20bn a year, making it one of “the world’s most lucrative black markets”. Notable busts included the 2009 interception of a British pet-shop owner caught “trying to smuggle a thousand large Amazonian spiders out of the country in his suitcases” and the 2017 rescue of “two dozen critically endangered yellow-crested cockatoos that a smuggler had stuffed inside water bottles”. Many songbird devotees have been known to “dope the birds with rum and stuff them inside hair curlers” in an attempt to get them out of their native Guyana. Let’s hope they don’t end up as jailbirds.