Man sentenced for rare bird theft from Museum at Tring

08 April 2011

Today, 22-year old Edwin Rist from the USA was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, suspended for two years and was given a supervision order for 12 months.  

Rist pleaded guilty to burglary and money laundering offences after 299 rare bird skins went missing from the Natural History Museum at Tring on June 24 2009.

Edwin Rist was arrested on 12 November last year and was studying music in London. He stole 299 skins for use in ornamental fly-tying, the money from which he was hoping to put towards his studies and buy a new flute.

Tropical bird specimens such as these were stolen

Tropical bird specimens such as these were stolen

He separated many of the bird skins, or feathers from them, and sold them on to other fly-tiers. A fly-tier alerted the police after he saw the media appeals and became suspicious when he was offered the skins for sale.

Following the arrest and charge, a number of people around the world came forward with specimens they had unwittingly purchased from Rist and wanted to return. 

So far, 191 intact birds have been recovered, but only 101 still retain their labels, which are critical scientifically. Parts, such as feathers, have also been recovered from an estimated 31 further birds.

Judge Steven Gullick said, 'The loss of the birds was a natural history disaster.'

Detective Inspector Fraser Wylie from Dacorum Local Crime Unit said, 'This is a very positive result against a man who, through his obsession with fly-tying and greed for money, essentially tried to rob the world of some of its natural heritage.

'This case and the subsequent sentence send a strong message to anyone considering similar criminal behaviour that there is a strong likelihood they will be caught and receive a criminal record for their efforts.'

Crown Prosecution Service Hertfordshire District Crown Prosecutor Tapashi Nadarajah said, 'This was an unusual case for CPS. Some of these birds were very old and very rare, which made their theft even more distressing for the staff at the Natural History Museum. Thankfully, many of the stolen bird skins have been recovered and will continue to enlighten and fascinate people for many more years to come.'  

Natural History Museum's Director of Science Professor Richard Lane said, 'We are pleased that the matter has been resolved. We would to thank the police, media and public and the fly-tying community for their help in recovering many of these priceless specimens but there has still been a terrible impact on our national collections.'

Appeal for return of outstanding birds

DI Wylie added, 'I would like to appeal to anyone else who may have bought bird feathers or skins from Rist to come forward and return these items. 

'Like previous people, you may well have done so without knowing their source. Please get in touch so we can return these rare items to the Museum.'

Anyone with information is asked to contact either the police on non-emergency number 0845 33 00 222 or the Museum on +44 (0)20 7942 5065.

Irreplaceable specimens
Bird specimens like these need to be kept intact and labeled to keep their scientific value

Bird specimens like these need to be kept intact and labelled to keep their scientific value

The stolen birds were a number of brightly-coloured tropical birds, including cotingas, quetzals and birds of paradise. Prof Lane explains, 'Some of these are endangered species, irreplaceable and, therefore, of special scientific concern. 

'The knowledge gleaned from these collections helps protect endangered species and answer questions about the biodiversity of the world around us.'

Damaged specimens

Lane adds, 'Unfortunately, a significant number of the returned specimens have been irrevocably damaged or their labels destroyed which will make them almost impossible to study in the future so we would be extremely grateful for any information on the remaining missing specimens.

'The wanton destruction of such culturally and scientifically important specimens is in stark contrast to the great interest in nature demonstrated by many members of the fly-fishing community with whom the Museum has a close working relationship through our river-fly programme.'

A national collection

The birds that were stolen form part of the nation’s natural history collection, assembled over the last 350 years. The 70 million specimens looked after by the Museum are a resource of international importance in the development of scientific knowledge. 

The ornithological collections are amongst the most heavily used and are consulted by researchers throughout the world, who either visit the

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