This Ostrich Heist Story is the Craziest Ostrich Heist Story You'll Read This Year

Thursday May 09, 2019 Written by Toby

Ostrich GA Image: British Library

Delirious with malaria and unable to walk, Russell Thornton had to somehow get from Zaria, Nigeria, all the way to Cape Town, South Africa – and that was the least of his problems. He’d been sent on a top-secret expedition by the South African government, which said it would deny any involvement if he got caught. French and American spies might have been on his tail. Most importantly, the entire mission would be a failure if he couldn’t protect his precious, pilfered cargo: a flock of ostriches.

Atlas Obscura has the full scoop on the story, which it dubs ‘The Great 1911 Trans-Saharan Ostrich Heist’. Thornton’s mission, it relates, was driven by South Africa’s need to maintain its monopoly on the ostrich feather market, then a thriving industry due to their use in elaborate women’s hats. He’d been dispatched to snatch the elusive ‘Barbary ostrich’, said to have the best feathers of all ostriches, before anyone else got their hands on it.

After sneaking into French territory and mysteriously acquiring a flock – no one quite knows how – the malaria-riddled Thornton had to be carried by hammock. He eventually returned home with 140 ostriches, only for the feather market to collapse shortly – and the rationale for his life-threatening escapade along with it. As a final, salt-in-the-wound footnote, the flock’s last ostrich was struck by lightning and killed.

Ostrich G2Image: British Library