Caught at Birmingham Airport with 31 eggs taped to his tummy: Bizarre story of the world’s most audacious thief lifts the lid on multi-million industry feeding Arab sheikhs’ obsession with falcons that hunt at 150mph
- Jeffrey Lendrum is in prison after attempting to smuggle 17 bird eggs into Britain
- Lendrum, born in Zambia, has been jailed for several egg smuggling attempts
- Lendrum’s case lifts the lid on the thriving international market for birds of prey
Ordered by police to strip to his underwear, Jeffrey Lendrum unbuttoned his shirt. He stood there, arms at his sides, a blank expression on his face. Ribbons of white surgical tape were wrapped around his abdomen. Tucked snugly beneath the tape were one green, one black, and one blue woollen sock
Twenty minutes had elapsed since the man entered the shower facility in the Emirates Lounge at Birmingham International Airport.
He had been in there far too long, thought cleaner John Struczynski.
It was Monday, May 3, 2010, and the lounge had opened at noon for passengers booked on the 2.40pm Emirates flight to Dubai.
The man had left his female companion to go into the shower and was carrying a shoulder bag and two small suitcases.
His behaviour struck Struczynski as strange. Who takes all his luggage into the shower room?
Eventually, the door opened and the balding, slender, middle-aged white man of average height stepped out.
The cleaner followed him in and looked around. The shower floor and glass partition were both bone-dry.
All the towels remained stacked and neatly folded. The wash basin didn’t have a drop of water in it.
Clearly, this passenger was up to something.
Unsure what he was looking for, Struczynski rifled through the towels, rummaged beneath the complimentary toothpaste tubes and other toiletries.
In the corner of the baby-changing area, there was a plastic bin. Struczynski looked inside.
At the bottom was a green cardboard egg carton. In one of the middle slots sat a single egg, dyed blood-red. The cleaner stared at it, touched it gently.
What could it mean? Returning to the front desk, he quietly murmured to two women there: ‘We may have a problem.’
Within minutes, a pair of airport-based plain-clothes officers from West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit arrived.
The passenger presented an Irish passport, identifying himself as 48-year-old Jeffrey Paul Lendrum, born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).
A search of his luggage turned up an assortment of unusual gear: thermal bags, a Leica camera viewing scope, a thermometer, binoculars, a GPS system, a walkie-talkie, and a golf ball retriever which used telescopic extensions to stretch up to 17ft.
Lendrum carried plenty of cash, too: £5,000, 3,500 US dollars and some South African rand. He also had two more egg cartons. The first was empty. The other was filled with ten quail eggs.
His work had introduced him to a thriving international market for birds of prey. This legal, tightly regulated trade linked wealthy Arab devotees of the ancient sport of falconry with licensed breeders in the US, Britain and other Western European countries
Ordered by police to strip to his underwear, he unbuttoned his shirt. He stood there, arms at his sides, a blank expression on his face.
Ribbons of white surgical tape were wrapped around his abdomen. Tucked snugly beneath the tape were one green, one black, and one blue woollen sock.
Plastic zip ties divided each sock into five segments, and inside each segment was an oval-shaped object.
The police unwrapped the surgical tape, removed the socks and, one by one, extracted the contents. They laid 14 eggs gently on a table.
They were slightly smaller than ordinary hens’ eggs, ranging in hue from marble-brown to dark red.
One was pale, with chocolate speckles; another had a background of caramel, bruised with plum-coloured blotches.
The police officers had never seen anything like them. This, they realised, was entirely out of their league.
About 100 miles away in Liverpool, Andy McWilliam was in his garden when his phone rang.
An officer of the Counter Terrorism Unit at Birmingham Airport was on the line.
McWilliam was a retired policeman now working as a senior investigative support officer for the National Wildlife Crime Unit.
It employed four former detectives with a comprehensive knowledge of wildlife legislation to travel across Britain, helping police investigate offences such as the trading of endangered species and animal cruelty. McWilliam’s particular expertise was bird crime.
The police unwrapped the surgical tape, removed the socks and, one by one, extracted the contents. They laid 14 eggs gently on a table. They were slightly smaller than ordinary hens’ eggs, ranging in hue from marble-brown to dark red
He listened as the officer detailed the eggs’ size, colours and patterns. McWilliam was all but certain they were those of the peregrine falcon, the fastest creature on the planet, having been clocked flying at 158mph.
And he had little doubt that the eggs were fertile and close to hatching. The passenger was carrying them strapped to his body because he needed to keep them warm until their incubation period was complete.
Crucial, too, was the fact that he was heading for Dubai.
‘I’m dropping everything to come to you. Whatever you do, keep the eggs warm,’ McWilliam said.
His work had introduced him to a thriving international market for birds of prey.
This legal, tightly regulated trade linked wealthy Arab devotees of the ancient sport of falconry with licensed breeders in the US, Britain and other Western European countries.
Falconry, which dates back to at least 700 BC, is fundamental to the culture of the Arab world.
It was a means of survival, with bedouins trapping birds on their annual migration and then training them to kill and return to the human fist.
It was an effective way of adding to the nomads’ meagre diet of milk, dates and rice.
Falcons now appear on corporate logos, banknotes, and the national emblem of the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven Gulf sheikhdoms, the largest of which are Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
In 2002, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, son and heir of the billionaire ruler of Dubai, introduced a new sport to the Arab world: falcon racing.
Lendrum repeated the story he’d told airport police: they were duck eggs. He suffered backache and his physiotherapist had instructed him to wear raw eggs strapped around his abdomen
This populist move – to keep Emiratis connected to their heritage – turned falconry into a multi-million- pound global enterprise. The races quickly caught on.
Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi with a fortune estimated at £11 billion, created The President Cup, held each January.
The competition between the Al Maktoum and the Al Nahyan families had fuelled a quest for the fastest, hardiest and most beautiful falcons in the world.
It’s big business. The majority of the 12,000 captive-bred birds exported from the West are destined for the UAE.
In 2013, a pure white gyrfalcon, the largest and most powerful species of the falcon family, was sold to a royal in Doha, the capital of Qatar, for £211,000.
But McWilliam was also aware of a lucrative underground market. The richest Middle Eastern aficionados spend more than £300,000 for a single bird acquired illegally from the wild.
Believing that wild birds are faster, stronger and healthier than those born and raised in captivity, sheikhs employ ‘trappers’ to snatch young birds from the most remote corners of the globe.
The thieves use pigeons and other lures to take fledglings in mid-flight, or, scale cliffs and trees and seize chicks from nests.
By many accounts, the Emirates has cracked down on bird smuggling but it is difficult to stop a skilled smuggler from sneaking eggs across a border.
The detention of this new suspect at Birmingham Airport suggested that an illegal trade – financed by some of the richest and most powerful men on Earth – was more ambitious than anybody had believed.
Arriving at the airport, McWilliam’s suspicions were confirmed: they were peregrine falcon eggs.
One after another, they registered strong heartbeats on his ‘Egg Buddy’ digital monitor. Only one of the 14 showed a flat line.
The thief must be a professional. Locating so many eggs in the wilderness – at four eggs to a clutch, a minimum of four nests – must have required patience, acute powers of observation, physical courage, and athletic skill.
Believing that wild birds are faster, stronger and healthier than those born and raised in captivity, sheikhs employ ‘trappers’ to snatch young birds from the most remote corners of the globe. The thieves use pigeons and other lures to take fledglings in mid-flight, or, scale cliffs and trees and seize chicks from nests
The quail eggs and painted hen’s egg were decoys – further signs of the thief’s attention to detail. It was a clever tactic, probably meant to persuade customs that he was carrying ordinary eggs home to eat.
The 13 eggs would hatch between five and eight days later, and it was arranged that the RSPB would introduce the rescued chicks to active nest sites in Scotland.
The following morning, at police headquarters in Solihull, McWilliam met the most audacious and ruthless falcon thief of all time. He had been aware of the role allegedly played by Middle Eastern royal families in the illicit trade of falcons but had never come across hard evidence. Maybe the suspect could lead him to some sheikhs.
Lendrum repeated the story he’d told airport police: they were duck eggs. He suffered backache and his physiotherapist had instructed him to wear raw eggs strapped around his abdomen. It was an unusual remedy, he acknowledged, but nothing else had helped.
McWilliam told him: ‘This is ridiculous! Let’s cut the rubbish. You were taking these falcon eggs out live because they are destined for the falcon trade in Dubai.’
Gradually, Lendrum admitted they were falcon eggs. He said he’d taken them from four nests in the South Wales, having stumbled by chance upon them while hiking.
He was taking them home to South Africa for his personal collection. However, officers had discovered a large box in his car which McWilliam recognised as an egg incubator. Also there was a backpack filled with climbing equipment.
McWilliam would soon learn that Lendrum’s missions had extended to every corner of the globe, from Zimbabwe to Canada.
His father had sparked his interest in egg-collecting as a child, clambering perilously from tree to tree dozens of feet off the ground.
His first criminal conviction had been in 1983 when police raided his family home and uncovered a cabinet full of eggs, many from endangered species.
He and his father were found guilty of multiple counts of theft and illegal possession, fined £1,900 each and given suspended sentences.
Lendrum claimed he had given up illegal nest-robbing after moving to South Africa in 1985 but McWilliam’s investigation exposed the patterns of a master criminal: an adventurer, athlete, and logistician who had operated for decades.
On the morning of April 28, 2010, Lendrum had driven into rural Wales, where, shortly after dawn the next day, he waited atop an escarpment, peering through binoculars, looking for male falcons returning to their nests with food for their incubating partners.
At 8am, he abseiled 20ft to a ledge, scooping up the clutch as the peregrine parents flew off in fright. He placed the four eggs in his thermal bag.
He took a second clutch in the afternoon and returned the next morning for two more abseils, seizing seven more eggs and wrapping them snugly in woollen socks to keep them warm and cushioned.
When interrogated about his clients in the Arab world, Lendrum claimed not to know what McWilliam was talking about.
He did not have any business in the Middle East, he insisted. Nevertheless, he was duly charged and remanded in custody.
With Lendrum locked up, McWilliam methodically built a case against him. He discovered that his criminal missions had gone back decades, that he had a storage facility in Northamptonshire, had bought an incubator on eBay days before his trip to Wales, and had a police record in Canada as well as Zimbabwe.
To round up his summer-long investigation and case for the prosecution, McWilliam asked a Welsh-based falcon breeder for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to estimate the worth of the 13 live eggs.
At £10,000 for a wild female and £5,000 for a male, which is two-thirds the female’s size and a slower racer, he put the value at £75,000.
At Warwick Crown Court, Lendrum pleaded guilty and was jailed for 30 months. Two months after he was sentenced, McWilliam made an appointment to see him in prison.
He hoped the egg thief might be more forthcoming about his Middle Eastern sponsors. No luck. Lendrum insisted that he’d had no business in the Middle East.
After his release from jail, Lendrum returned to South Africa but there was an inevitability that he would continue stealing eggs.
This time, he headed to Chile, to target one of the world’s rarest birds of prey – the pallid peregrine.
But investigators were on the case and Lendrum was eventually caught at Sao Paulo airport in Brazil. Like the Midlands team, they, too, were unconvinced by his claim that the rare eggs were just ‘chicken eggs’.
A judge called his testimony ‘laughable’ and jailed Lendrum for four-and-a-half years for violating Brazil’s Environmental Crimes Act.
Lendrum claimed he had given up illegal nest-robbing after moving to South Africa in 1985 but McWilliam’s investigation exposed the patterns of a master criminal: an adventurer, athlete, and logistician who had operated for decades
However, while still free having appealed against the judgment, Lendrum jumped bail, fled the country, and using an Irish passport obtained in Argentina, flew home to Johannesburg.
It was at this point, in 2018, that I arranged to meet him. Our discussion shifted to the memoir he wanted to write. I asked whether he planned to expose the wild falcon trade in the Middle East.
‘I can write about it,’ he said – acknowledging, for the first time, that the black market exists – ‘but I’d end up in a tunnel somewhere, killed.’
In June of that year, the Home Office issued a press release: ‘Rare Bird Eggs Importation Prevented By Border Force At Heathrow.’
A passenger from South Africa had been found with 17 eggs from endangered birds of prey, as well as two fish eagle chicks that had hatched in transit, in a customised belt hidden beneath his clothing.
I had little doubt who it was. Sure enough, Jeffrey Lendrum was charged with four counts of importing protected wildlife and sentenced to 37 months’ imprisonment.
When I spoke to Andy McWilliam, who had continued to follow Lendrum’s story, he hinted that he had intelligence on some of the biggest financiers in Dubai and other Emirates, but couldn’t name names as they hadn’t been charged with a crime in Britain.
Efforts to persuade Arab governments to act on information collected by the National Wildlife Crime Unit had led nowhere.
‘It’s out of our control,’ McWilliam said with resignation. Lendrum, the master thief, is due to be released on parole later this year.
In the meantime, a tiny handful of wildlife investigators, most unrecognised, are still working to safeguard the world’s bounty and wonder.
© Joshua Hammer, 2020
From The Falcon Thief, by Joshua Hammer, which is published by S&S on Thursday, priced £16.99.
Offer price £13.60 (20 per cent discount) until April 30. To order, go to mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155. Free delivery on all orders – no minimum spend.
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