This Heist’s for the Birds

A peregrine falcon estimated to be between three and four weeks old stares down the camera.(Andy Abeyta/ Journal Star via AP)

Wildlife criminals generate billions of dollars a year killing or smuggling protected animals. Jeffrey Lendrum took things to a whole new level, literally and figuratively: his specialty is bird eggs, which involves dangling from helicopters or rappelling down cliffs to pluck the eggs from their nests. Joshua Hammer has his story — and the story of the people who will pay a premium for an unhatched peregrine — at Outside online.

Interpol estimates that the illegal wildlife trade is worth as much as $20 billion a year, among the world’s most lucrative black markets. But that trade extends well beyond elephant ivory and rhino horn. Back in November 2009, police in Rio de Janeiro stopped a British pet-shop owner who was trying to smuggle a thousand large Amazonian spiders out of the country in his suitcases. In May 2017, police in East Java rescued about two dozen critically endangered yellow-crested cockatoos that a smuggler had stuffed inside water bottles. And multiple people have been arrested over the years for moving finches from Guyana to New York, where finch “races” in Queens pit the songbirds against each other to see which one sings fastest. One common smuggling M.O. is to dope the birds with rum and stuff them inside hair curlers.

Falcons, which encompass 39 species, are distributed on all continents except Antarctica. In some parts of the world, particularly in the UK, the threat posed by DDT gave way to a new menace: compulsive collectors who stole the eggs of protected species from their nests, blowing out the contents and mounting the shells. The thefts threatened numerous species—red-backed shrikes, ospreys, golden eagles, peregrines—before the Scottish police, in coordination with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, launched Operation Easter in 1997. Many of the perpetrators, it turned out, were middle-aged men driven by a need that even they ­struggled to understand. “Certain individuals just become obsessed with it,” McWilliam said in an interview for the 2015 documentary Poached. “It’s a self-obsessive, self-indulging crime. And why people risk going to prison for a bird’s egg, it just beats me.”

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