Author, Book review, Joshua Hammer, Non-fiction, Publisher, Simon & Schuster, true crime

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

Non-fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 318 pages; 2021.

For around 18 years (1998-2016), I worked on specialist magazines in the UK covering all kinds of subject matter, from equestrian sport to gamekeeping, in which I had no specialist knowledge — just natural curiosity and a willingness to learn new things and ask a lot of questions.

During 2005-2010, I was deputy editor, later rising to the editor, on a weekly publication about birdkeeping (even though I knew little about birds). We used to run four pages of news every week, the great bulk of it about bird crime — specifically, the theft of birds and or their eggs from the wild — and conservation.

Later, I was freelance sub-editor and then permanent content editor on a weekly country sports magazine that ran a lot of stories about birds of prey being persecuted (allegedly by gamekeepers protecting their gamebirds) or “going missing” in the wild under unexplained circumstances. In fact, in 2015-16 we ran so many stories about hen harriers that I’m surprised we didn’t change our name to Hen Harrier Weekly.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I was immediately intrigued by Joshua Hammer’s non-fiction book, The Falcon Thief, when I saw it on the shelf because it covered a topic with which I was relatively familiar.

Subtitled A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird, it charts the life, times and crimes of a convicted wildlife thief who worked across three continents as well as telling the story of the British policeman who was instrumental in securing a conviction. It’s part police procedural, natural history treatise and true crime tale, and it reads like a well-crafted, page-turning novel. It is narrative non-fiction at its very best.

Airport arrest

The story begins with the apprehension of Irishman Jeffrey Lendrum at Birmingham International Airport, in the UK, on 3 May 2010. He was headed to Dubai but never got on the flight because a security guard noticed him behaving suspiciously. He was apprehended by officers from the Counter Terrorism Unit, but he didn’t have a bomb strapped to his body —  he had 14 fragile peregrine falcon eggs taped to his abdomen.

Lendrum claimed he was suffering from spinal trouble and that he was carrying eggs — which he claimed were from ducks — because they “force him to keep his stomach muscles taut […] and strengthen his lower back”.

(Isn’t that the most ludicrous thing you have ever heard? As the book reveals, Lendrum is notorious for making up ludicrous stories and this is not the worst of it.)

Investigations revealed the eggs had been stolen from a remote cliffside in Wales, most likely “on order” for wealthy clients in the Middle East, specifically Dubai, where rich sheiks pay huge money — up to $40,000 for a single bird — to secure the very best birds for falconry racing. This is an exclusive sport offering millions of dollars in prize money (the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club’s annual President Cup, for instance, offers a purse of $11 million) and prestige.

A lengthy investigation

Lendrum’s arrest made headlines because nobody had been caught smuggling rare raptor eggs in the UK for decades. This is where Detective Andy McWilliam, of the UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, steps in. The unit struggles for money and credibility (few people see wildlife crime as “real” crime), so the case is a chance to prove its worth.

A headline-making conviction of a notorious wildlife criminal could protect the unit from closure — or even, if McWilliam, was very, very lucky, get his budget significantly raised for the next year.

The book weaves together these dual narratives — of the crime and the investigation — and highlights how both men develop an almost symbiotic relationship that spans years and continents because Lendrum didn’t just do this once, he did it multiple times.

As well as being an epic police procedural cum adventure tale, The Falcon Thief is also a brilliant history of the illicit trade in birds and their eggs, the multiple reasons for it, why it is such a vital issue to address and how authorities across the world are working together to end it.

It shows how Dubai, in particular, has fuelled the black market for endangered birds of prey because of the belief that  “falcons stolen from nests are innately superior to those bred in captivity”.

Two brilliant characters

The author describes this as a “shadowy world”, one that draws in Lendrum, who, it turns out is a well-travelled, fearless character almost too fantastical to be true. He’s an intelligent ornithologist, an obsessive egg collector, a skilled climber, a brave adventurer, a clever businessman, an imaginative liar and a master manipulator. His crimes stretch back decades, from his early life in South Africa, where he made a name for himself as a well-respected wildlife enthusiast volunteering on research projects, to a businessman in the UK using his shopfront as a cover for illicit activities.

His foe — McWilliam — is equally intriguing. A policeman with decades of experience, who shunned promotion because he liked walking the beat, and then used his skills in a newly emerging field of investigation, he’s the resilient, hard-working, never-give-up type of bloke you want on your side.

This is a hugely enjoyable book, well-paced and filled with enough natural drama and tension to make it a page-turner. Will he or won’t he get convicted? What daredevil feats will Lendrum commit to feed his obsession? Will McWilliam’s unit get closed down and will he have to give up the chase? You will have to read it to find out…

I read this for Non-Fiction November (#NonFicNov) hosted by various bloggers of which you can find out more here. (Note, there’s a whole bunch of prompts for the month, but reading by schedule doesn’t really work for me, so I hope the hosts don’t mind me reading and reviewing non-fiction on a whim. )

10 thoughts on “‘The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird’ by Joshua Hammer”

  1. I once heard a fascinating talk about the unsavoury world of wildlife crime, so you’re knocking on an open door in inviting my interest in this book. But it’s not in my local library. Bother!

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    1. The illicit global wildlife trade is second only to the drug trade but it has nowhere near the same profile. I once had to sit with a policeman in my office, helping to bag up something like 100+ classified adverts (each ad in a separate evidence bag) that someone had placed in our magazine allegedly selling British birds stolen from the wild. Working on that magazine was an eye opening experience. The criminality never ceased to amaze me.

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  2. It does sound like a great whodunnit, perhaps the (now late) Wilbur Smith could have turned his compatriot into an adventure anti-hero. It’s impossible to know what to do about the illegal wildlife trade when some countries clearly sponsor it, or at least allow their citizens to do so.

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    1. Well, it’s not really a whodunnit, it’s more of a whydunnit and a cat-and-mouse game between criminal and cop. The problem with wildlife crime is that it’s not always taken seriously by many countries and it takes an enormous amount of resources to police. But the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) does AMAZING work and the penalties for not only trading stuff on the CITES list but just having it in your possession (ie. rare birds eggs) are pretty eyewatering.

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  3. I remember seeing something on TV about the trade in some of our gorgeous Australian birds and it was really distressing to see, particularly since The Spouse, when he was acting Director of Flora and Fauna, was responsible for the survival of some really rare birds, notably Victoria’s bird emblem. There were only 50 surviving at that time…

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    1. The criminal and cruel things people do to wildlife never ceases to amaze me. I always thought it was about money, but in this book Hammer is able to show it can also be an addiction and the need to just possess things. Egg collectors are a case in point. So many men (they are always men) collect eggs for their own personal collections and because they know it’s against the law they will go to extraordinary lengths to hide their collections, putting them up in the attic or in specially made compartments to hide under the bed. Which seems to defeat the purpose of having a collection of anything… surely you want to put it on display and show it off. Interestingly this book also mentions one of my writers, aged in his 70s, who famously fell out of a tree and died. He was collecting birds eggs!

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        1. I know… it *is* funny. I actually just Googled the case and realise he wasn’t one of my writers, because I was deputy at the time, so he must have been hired by my predecessor, and he was in his early 60s, not 70s.

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    1. It’s an entertaining ride, all right, and one that makes you wonder why on earth some people do the things that they do. It’s actually quite good at examining the psychological aspects of wildlife crime…ie why people do it and it ain’t always about the money.

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