The Butterfly Sting

How a federal wildlife agent brought down one of the world's most notorious insect thieves

  • This collection of Ornithoptera goliath, laid out in a drawer, was confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The males are the colorful ones; the females are brown.

    Courtesy USFWS
  • Bhutan glory, Bhutaniti lidderdalei (Bhutan and northeastern India)

    Wikipedia
  • Desert swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes coloro (San Bernardino County, California)

    Jim P. Brock
  • Grand Canyon swallowtail, Papilio indra kaibabensis (north rim of the Grand Canyon)

    Jim P. Brock
  • Queen Alexandra's birdwing, Ornithoptera alexandrae (Papua New Guinea)

    Wikipedia
  • Undercover agent Ed Newcomer (identity concealed) of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service displays a framed set of Queen Alexandra's butterflies (male, top; female, bottom) seized as evidence in the Hisayoshi Kojima case.

    USFWS
 

Ted Nelson stood in the shadows near the trash can. The boating-equipment salesman stared through a video camera at a dark-haired figure bent over a folding table. Inside a wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Hisayoshi Kojima -- Yoshi to his friends -- was inspecting a display of mounted butterflies. Around him, the corridors crawled with bug-lovers: entomologists, bug collectors, people who kept bugs as pets, bug sellers, bug buyers, even would-be tailors who knitted clothing with bug designs. Tourists gasped at hissing cockroaches skittering in Tupperware and dickered over prices for pin-mounted scorpions. It was late spring in 2006, and this was the 20th anniversary of Los Angeles' annual insect fair, among the largest events of its kind in the country. The 60 or so exhibitors were an extended family of sorts, who traded bugs on an international circuit of shows or through eBay. There were those who wanted things, and those who got things. Almost every vendor here knew Hisayoshi Kojima. The 55-year-old got things few others could.

And Ted Nelson was in the market for something no one else could get.

Nelson watched Kojima fiddle with his glasses. The two men had been friends once, or so one of them thought. They'd met here, three years earlier. Nelson had strolled up to Kojima's booth and started firing off questions. They'd hit it off spectacularly. Nelson said he wanted to collect insects. Flattered, Kojima made Nelson his protege.

For much of the next year, the two had been inseparable, and what Nelson learned blew him away. Few who knew Kojima hadn't heard that National Geographic had hired him to scout rainforest jungles for insects. Some knew Kojima made several hundred thousand dollars a year selling bugs. Others had heard he kept a kid on retainer to net butterflies in Honduras. But Yoshi Kojima also dabbled in the illicit. He bragged about bribing border officials so he could sneak endangered insects out of South America. He stole rare swallowtail butterflies from the eastern part of Mojave National Preserve and sold beautiful blue-tipped Papilio indra kaibabensis from Grand Canyon National Park.

Kojima didn't care what was legal and what was not. If a customer wanted Ornithoptera goliath samson, the golden birdwing butterfly from the Arfak Mountains on Irian Jaya, Yoshi Kojima was the go-to guy. If someone needed live fist-sized Dynastes beetles from Bolivia, Kojima could get dozens, though they wouldn't come cheap. He claimed that he'd sold 30 beetles in Japan for $10,000 apiece. He once told a prospective buyer that eight people had been arrested for gathering green and yellow swallowtails inside China. Then he offered to sell one on the spot.

Kojima always had the rarest materials at the best prices because he didn't mind raiding the planet for endangered species.

Nelson watched Kojima work the room like an ambassador, ambling between tables admiring insects. He didn't want to blow his chance to reconnect, so he'd come with his camera, hoping to blend with the tourists. Nelson understood his former mentor; he knew Kojima would be suspicious unless their reunion seemed accidental. After a few minutes, he saw his chance. Kojima moved toward a narrow corridor, and Nelson positioned himself at its far end. If they walked toward each other, Kojima couldn't miss him.

Then, the world's most notorious butterfly smuggler would run smack into the man who'd spent years trying to arrest him. For Ted Nelson wasn't a bored boating-equipment salesman. He was a federal cop working deep undercover. He was U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Ed Newcomer. And his relationship with Yoshi Kojima was really just beginning.

Across the American West, state and federal investigators like Newcomer troll streams, tromp beaches and hike deserts, forests and parks, trying to halt the poachers who steal nature for profit. They're not just chasing hunters that gun down deer out of season. These cops set up phony storefronts and adopt fake identities. They spy on thieves with video cameras and wear body wires to secretly record conversations. They spend weeks -- occasionally years -- tracking smugglers who illegally catch, buy or sell the West's odd, spectacular or unassuming life forms: the eggs of ancient fish from California rivers, the strange-looking shellfish from deep in Puget Sound, or the beautiful rare butterflies found only around the Grand Canyon.

Illegal trade in wildlife isn't new, but these crooks are capitalizing on a new reality: Globalization has given rise to untold illicit markets, and technology has transformed how everything is bought and sold. Today, buyers purchase exotic goods direct from Indonesia on the Internet. Almost anything in nature can be found on the black market. Baboon noses. Decorative seed plants known as cycads that have been around since Jurassic times. Even drippy moss from Oregon or Mount St. Helens National Monument gets stripped illegally and sold to legitimate companies, which market the greenery to floral wholesalers in Europe.

No one knows the true scope of modern wildlife trafficking. Because most of these crimes go unreported and undetected, the trade is difficult to quantify. But by no estimation is the problem small. The research arm of the U.S. Congress estimates the global illegal trade in plants and animals is worth $5 billion to $20 billion annually. Investigators with the European Union suspect that 20 percent of all fish on the market are caught or sold outside the law. A few years ago, an Oregon State University botanist concluded that just the illegal harvest of wild moss from the nation's forests may bring in tens of millions of dollars each year.