When U.K. border officials nabbed 56-year-old smuggler Jeffrey Lendrum at Heathrow Airport in June, he was sporting an unseasonably heavy jacket.
The officials searched him, stripping him of his shirt and revealing a black belt concealed by hospital gauze. Inside the belt, more than a dozen eggs from endangered bird species and two hatched Cape vulture chicks all worth approximately $110,000 US were tucked inside individual wool socks.
It was Lendrum’s fifth such arrest, and he “knew the game was up,” said journalist Joshua Hammer, who has covered the egg thief’s story and is now writing a book on the subject.
Lendrum quickly reverted to old lies, Hammer said, claiming he had saved the birds from their destroyed habitat and was taking them to a rehabilitation centre.
“It didn’t work,” Hammer told The Current’s Anna Maria Tremonti.
Earlier this month, Lendrum was sentenced to just over three years in jail for four offences related to his London arrest. Over the decades, he’s drawn the ire of conservationists for his wildlife crimes.
But in the “strange little subculture” of people obsessed with buying and selling rare birds of prey on the black market, Hammer says Lendrum is one of a kind.
“There’s nobody else doing what he is … this sort of one-stop shopping for rare bird eggs,” said Hammer.
A childhood obsession
The son of a bird enthusiast, Lendrum grew up in southern Africa, climbing trees and cliffs in search of bird eggs from the time he was just a kid, said Hammer.
“It began as a kind of collecting obsession,” he said.
But by the 1990s, wealthy Arab sheiks were paying Lendrum large sums of money to travel to the most remote corners of the world in search of rare falcon eggs.
Falconry, or hawking — which involves using falcons or hawks to hunt prey — remains a popular sport in the Middle East, especially among royalty, said Hammer.
While many people obtain the birds through breeders, there’s a belief that wild eggs are “genetically superior,” he said. And some people are willing to fork over significant amounts of cash for them on the black market.
Hammer has heard from several sources that the eggs of gyrfalcons, one of the most sought-after birds in the Middle East, can sell for as much as half a million dollars.
Lendrum had just the right skills for the job. However, stealing the eggs was just the first step.
“The other part was managing to keep the eggs alive, as he would transport them long distances, sneaking them across international borders, past customs officials, through security checkpoints, et cetera, and bring them back alive to the Middle East,” said Hammer.
Arrested in northern Quebec
During one adventure, Hammer wrote in an article for Outside magazine, Lendrum allegedly set out to steal gyrfalcon eggs in Northern Canada. Hammer said Lendrum transported about 29 eggs and 15 nests from Kuujjuaq, in northern Quebec, all the way to Dubai.
In the early 2000s, he returned to Kuujjuaq again, this time chartering a helicopter to bring him out to various cliffs. But when the pilot became suspicious and alerted authorities, Lendrum found himself in handcuffs.
Although the arrest didn’t end in jail time, it brought Lendrum to the attention of conservationists for the first time.
“This was kind of the beginning of the slippery slope that ended with another major arrest in 2010, eight years later, which brought him his first jail sentence in England,” said Hammer.
‘He’s a bit of a danger junkie’
Despite several convictions over the years, Lendrum continued to climb cliffs and trees, finding himself in adventurous places around the world — like a national park in Chile covered in black lava from a volcano that erupted thousands of years ago.
Hammer guesses Lendrum chose to snatch eggs partly for the money, and partly because he rationalizes that he’s bringing the birds to a better place.
But besides that, “he’s a bit of a danger junkie,” said Hammer, who has traced Lendrum’s footsteps to cliff sides in Wales, where he says powerful winds could sweep a person off the edge to their death.
“Every one of these places that he, that I visited — these were just incredibly dramatic places,” said Hammer.
“It just made me realize how remarkable this guy’s life was, that this is what he did.”
Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler.
Related stories from around the North:
Finland: Hatchling numbers plummet for Finland’s golden eagle, Yle News
Norway: Climate change threatens Arctic fox’s future in Nordic nations, Yle News
Sweden: Poachers suspected behind dwindling wolf numbers in Sweden, Radio Sweden
United States: Trump admin pushes for looser rules on predator hunting in Alaska, Alaska Public Media