Mark Cocker

Dangerously desirable: the white-morph gyr falcon commands sky-high prices

Illegal trade in the world’s largest falcon leaves even the most ingenious smuggler penniless and on the run

The art of falconry is more than 3,000 years old and possibly as popular now as at any time. Its devotees argue that in a pure form it is a deeply honourable tradition, requiring superhuman patience to coax a magnificent predator to hunt at the owner’s behest. It is a relationship, they would also claim, of mutual understanding and partnership between hawk and human. That’s the positive version.

At its most degraded, falconry seems to be a psychopathological obsession, rooted in a fetish for control over beautiful raptors, which sometimes drives practitioners to morally dubious, even illegal, behaviour. The American journalist Joshua Hammer has written a revealing portrait of the sport that is located at a point where these two versions intersect.

The book’s anti-hero is a complex, troubling and seemingly unrepentant figure called Jeffrey Lendrum, who grew up in white Rhodesia. There he became a passionate naturalist, placing his obvious physical courage and considerable knowledge at the service of research projects to protect rare birds of prey in Zimbabwe’s national parks. One of the specialities of this brave young man was to abseil down crags to check otherwise inaccessible eagle nests. However, these formative episodes were shared with Lendrum’s father, Adrian, whose shadowy role in the son’s descent into criminality seems to be hinted at by Hammer.

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Gradually it dawned on friends and colleagues that father and son were not just collaborators in the conservation work. They were stealing rare eagle and owl eggs, among others, and threatening the very birds they purported to love. It led directly to the first of Lendrum’s court appearances for wildlife crime, which also seemed to be the moment that he realised the financial potential in the illegal sale of rare birds of prey.

Like a well-schooled crime reporter Hammer investigates and describes Lendrum’s 35-year career as an egg thief.

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