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)

  • 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)

  • 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.


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.

— —

State and federal agents say the volume of illegal wildlife streaming into the U.S. still dwarfs the amount heading out. But globalization has altered the balance, and more goods than ever now flow out of the country. Consider the case of Puget Sound's geoduck (pronounced "gooey duck"), the world's largest burrowing clam. The bivalve is found almost exclusively in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and wasn't even fished commercially before the 1970s. But rising wealth overseas coupled with great strides in international shipping created high demand for this mollusk in Asia. Soon, poachers made millions selling geoducks to foreign markets. This winter, Hong Kong customs officials broke open a seafood-trafficking ring and seized $1.4 million in undocumented shellfish, including 87 crates of geoduck — merely the latest in a long string of clam crimes.

The ecological implications of this type of thievery vary by species and location. Sixteen years after Washington state banned abalone gathering, the colorful underwater mollusks have declined 80 percent. Biologists believe illicit harvests by greedy scuba divers helped send the shellfish hurtling toward extinction. One diver told police he'd stolen so many — tens of thousands, which he sold to local restaurateurs, some of whom shipped the shellfish overseas — that the proceeds paid for his 26-foot fishing boat and his Jeep Cherokee.

Sometimes the damage is harder to calculate, or even observe. Not long ago Todd Swain, a special agent with the National Park Service, caught a poacher swiping owl pellets from Joshua Tree National Park. The thief sold the undigested feathers and fur to distributors who resold them to public-school science classrooms. "Taking a handful of those things might not seem like a big deal," Swain says. "But they play an ecological role just like everything else, and if you take them over and over from the same place, it's going to have an effect."

Nowhere, perhaps, is policing this crime wave more complex than in California, home to some of the world's busiest international ports and an exquisite terrain of rivers, deserts, forests, mountains and ocean beaches. With the state's human population pushing 40 million, it's not surprising that some fraction of them, like Yoshi Kojima, see the money to be made in fish, plants and animals. So while federal agents in San Ysidro battle every day to keep the world's illicit wildlife out, the theft of nature in California is on the rise. Poaching violations nearly tripled between 2003 and 2007, and some portion of that includes poaching for profit.

Each year, state authorities catch divers illegally bagging hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of abalone, some of it endangered. Most gets resold in San Francisco or Los Angeles or trucked over the border and shipped to Asia. And every year, undercover cops snag groups of major poachers who illegally hook and gut dozens of the state's white sturgeon for their eggs, which are used in caviar. The monstrous, bony sturgeon — North America's largest freshwater fish­ — can reach 20 feet, weigh half a ton and live a century. They mate infrequently and reproduce slowly. But the decline in the Caspian Sea sturgeon from which high-quality beluga caviar is made has turned the North American variety into valuable contraband.

Five sturgeon poachers were convicted just this January, and two more were arrested Feb. 25. One of those suspects had been caught five years earlier stirring sturgeon eggs into caviar in plastic buckets in a body shop. "We've got a lot of job security," says Kathy Ponting, who overseas the state's covert wildlife operations. "We consider the wildlife black market in California second only to the drug trade."

Yoshi Kojima had been on law enforcement's radar for years. Back in 2000, a tipster told federal agents that someone named Kojima was netting butterflies in the eastern part of Mojave National Preserve, where removing the slightest vegetation or tiniest creature is a crime. Kojima slipped away before anyone proved he broke the law. When wildlife cops learned three years later that Kojima would attend the bug fair, the tip worked its way to Special Agent Ed Newcomer.

"The plan was to go and snoop around and see if we could find him, and then just kind of see what he was selling and what was what," Newcomer told me. The agent was seated in his U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in a nondescript strip mall in Torrance, Calif., where files from old cases formed pillars all around him. "I knew nothing about butterflies, and I'd never been to one of these before so I had no idea what to expect."

Newcomer had only recently become an agent. He'd joined in his 30s, later than most. But he'd prepared for this moment for much of his life. He'd wanted to become a lawman since childhood, when he watched Adam-12 and played cops and robbers. In college he spied an advertisement for Fish and Wildlife special agents — like FBI agents, but for animals, as he surmised. The poster recommended law school, already part of his plans. He got out and worked as an assistant attorney general for the state of Washington, but he knew he still wanted to be a cop. He flirted with the FBI, but considered Fish and Wildlife an elite posting. The FBI fields nearly 13,000 agents. Fish and Wildlife employs only about 200, who investigate crimes all over the country.

Newcomer had dreamed of working undercover and believed he could blend in almost anywhere. One of his supervisors had made her name chasing alligator poachers in the 1970s. She believed in giving her agents rope. Newcomer believed in using it.

To catch Kojima, Newcomer knew he'd need a fake identity, something beyond a new name and a different haircut. In undercover work, "you can't be judgmental, you can't be afraid," Newcomer told me. "You have to open up your soul in a way. You have to buy in to the philosophy and attitude of those you're after." Newcomer knew from his training not to map his character too precisely. Better to merely draw in rough contours, keep things vague and close to the truth. That made deception easier to manage. Newcomer wanted a name close to his own, one he would answer to if someone shouted it without warning. He wanted to be sure he could fudge a signature, even if he accidentally started signing his real name. The character would need to be vaguely well-educated and free to come and go as he pleased. The boating world includes jobs few people understand, so the agent became a middle-class guy who sold boating supplies — a boring job that left time for new hobbies. Like bug collecting. Newcomer called this fellow Ted Nelson.

— —

Newcomer as Ted Nelson arrived at the museum in 2003, found Kojima's booth and just started yapping. Convincing Kojima of his sincerity was easy. Newcomer's ignorance, and his interest, was real. And Newcomer could tell Kojima liked the attention. He pointed out insects and quoted prices, and the two men shared laughs. At day's end, Kojima gave Ted Nelson a gift, a box of mounted butterflies to start his collection.

Within weeks, the pair became buddies. Over coffee at Starbucks on Venice Boulevard, Kojima talked about the time Mexican customs agents caught him with 200 live beetles and the time a South American official saw a beetle's horn poking from his carry-on. Kojima told Nelson he sold antiques through Sotheby's and once had collected fighting fish. He said he kept homes in Los Angeles and Japan, had run a travel business and held two official passports — one Japanese, one American.

Kojima explained how far bug collectors went for their obsession. True insect lovers didn't just catch butterflies but gathered larvae, pupae, chrysalises and cocoons. They grew special plants in their homes and reared their own specimens. The finest collectors wanted butterflies that had never flown — flying could scratch those delicate papery wings. True collectors used caterpillars to produce new collectibles before their eyes. The moment the creatures emerged and their wings filled with blood, they slipped the fresh specimens in glassine envelopes and refrigerated them. The dying insects metabolized their fat keeping warm. Once the butterflies were dead, the collectors stuck them with pins and mounted them under glass.

Newcomer filed away each tidbit, not knowing what might prove useful later. He told Kojima he reminded him of Indiana Jones. The balding bug collector clearly liked the comparison. Kojima confided that he wanted to reach new clients. He wanted to sell on eBay, but feared his written English was too poor. "I can do so many things, but I could not use eBay," he said, chuckling. He suggested his new acquaintance become his partner: Yoshi Kojima could supply the insects, and Ted Nelson could write descriptions.

Butterfly trading is controlled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an agreement among more than 170 countries. CITES was designed to prevent the overexploitation of rare creatures, and it protects 30,000 plants and animals using three categories, reflecting the varying levels of scarcity and risk posed by commerce. CITES III species generally thrive despite being bought and sold, but purchases are regulated and require export permits. CITES II species do not yet face extinction but could, so nations limit exports to keep populations stable. These species are carefully controlled, like prescription drugs. Buying or selling CITES II species isn't illegal unless done without permits. CITES I species, except in rare circumstances, are vanishing so rapidly from the planet that trade in them is outlawed. Getting these was Kojima's specialty.

Newcomer suspected his new friend wanted a patsy — someone he could feed to the cops in a pinch. He'd warned Nelson to avoid customers who demanded documentation. If federal agents ever contacted him, Nelson was to say that his boss stored permits in Japan. But Newcomer knew that if authorities caught them, Kojima would skip to Japan and pin blame on Ted Nelson. The agent, of course, kept such thoughts to himself.

There was good reason for Kojima to be cautious. Cruising bug-trading Web sites that fall, Newcomer found buyers openly suspicious of Kojima. One European collector said he'd seen him sell too many "unbelievable specimens" at "unbelievable prices." He suggested that Kojima was a crook or a con. An Indonesian collector complained that Kojima owed him money. Still another came to his defense.

Reading the exchanges gave Newcomer an idea. What if Ted Nelson posted messages vouching for Kojima? He would ingratiate himself with the butterfly king. Newcomer figured the insect dealer would appreciate the initiative.

The undercover agent could not have been more wrong. Instead of offering thanks, Kojima excoriated him. Ted Nelson didn't know what he was doing! Ted Nelson had moved too quickly without him! Ted Nelson did not properly screen his customers! If the feds raided Ted Nelson's home, they'd find Kojima's name on his computer! Ted Nelson was going to get them both caught!

Newcomer had clearly overplayed his hand. The agent wasn't sure what to do next. He kept in contact with Kojima by e-mail, but now the relationship was different, distant. His suspect eventually returned to Japan without Newcomer witnessing a single illegal sale. But Special Agent Newcomer wasn't quite through.

Seeking to get Kojima's attention, Newcomer decided to sell his own butterflies on eBay, advertised with digital pictures he'd gotten from Kojima. Newcomer would assign other federal agents to post the highest bid at each auction, to make sure he never completed a real sale. Newcomer held dozens of online auctions, hoping to show Kojima he could make his plan work. He didn't expect the reaction he got.

Kojima was livid. He saw Ted Nelson as a competitor and started openly campaigning against him. Whenever Ted Nelson posted a butterfly for sale, Kojima listed the same species for sale on another Web site. Sometimes Kojima added a jab. "Shame on you Ted Nelson," he wrote once. "You're using my photos without permission. You don't have CITES for this." Kojima advertised his goods as cheaper "than Ebay auction and Ted Nelson."

Newcomer knew he was in trouble. His aggressive tactics weren't working. More than a year after their first meeting, all Newcomer had done was turn Kojima against him. Still, he was determined to salvage something. He asked another agent to pose as a collector and try to purchase butterflies from Kojima online. In a moment of weakness, the careful dealer dropped his guard. Kojima sold this stranger three Bhutan glory butterflies and agreed to do so without proper paperwork. A package of butterflies arrived in the mail. They were smuggled, misdeclared, and lacking documentation.

The agents had finally caught Yoshi Kojima committing crimes.

But the crimes were a joke, and Newcomer knew it. Rather than a conspiracy to smuggle thousands of imperiled animals, the agent caught the butterfly kingpin trafficking $137 worth of insects. It was like nailing Pablo Escobar for snorting a single line of coke. No U.S. attorney would touch a case so small. Worse, Kojima had stopped corresponding entirely. Newcomer ran several more eBay auctions, but the butterfly king never surfaced again.

When Newcomer took a call from a state game warden in San Diego in 2004, he knew his investigation was over. An angry Japanese man ranting about butterfly smugglers — one smuggler in particular — had left a taped message on the agency's tip line. Newcomer had the warden send him the recording, but he already knew what he would hear. Kojima had called California's poaching hotline and, anonymously, turned Ted Nelson in.

Newcomer had torpedoed his own case.

— —

The Kojima files sat untouched on Newcomer's desk for two years while another case ballooned around them. In 2006, Newcomer, again as Ted Nelson, but now with a handlebar mustache and a crappy van, went back undercover. This time, he chased a roving band of pigeon racers who killed hawks and falcons that threatened their birds. A few weeks into his new operation, Newcomer got a tip. Kojima was back and heading to the bug fair. Newcomer decided to engineer a run-in where Ted Nelson could apologize and clear the air. That May, Newcomer grabbed his video camera and headed back to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. That's when he arranged to run headlong into Kojima in the corridor.

"What are you doing here?" Newcomer asked.

"No, what are you doing here?" Kojima replied.

The men shook hands. Ted Nelson said he was glad to see Kojima. He had, in fact, been meaning to thank him. Ted Nelson explained that someone had turned him in and, not knowing what to do, he'd fallen back on advice he'd once gotten from Kojima. When the cops showed up, he hadn't let them search his place, Ted Nelson said. He'd also kept his best stuff offsite. Kojima's wisdom had kept him out of prison, Ted Nelson said. He wanted him to know he was extremely grateful.

Kojima bought it; Newcomer could tell. The two men agreed to meet for lunch that afternoon. Two hours later over cold soup and cabbage at a Korean barbecue, Newcomer asked about Kojima's health. Kojima commented on Ted Nelson's new biker mustache. It almost seemed like the butterfly man was flirting. Both confessed they were still deep into the bug trade. Newcomer kept a hidden audio recorder running.

"You ever get those chimaeras?" Nelson asked. With wingspans that rival those of small robins, Ornithoptera chimaera, a spectacular species of birdwing butterfly, flutters above rainforest canopies in the South Pacific, feeding on the nectar of high-sprouting flowers. Logging, mining and the march of agriculture, particularly palm-oil plantations, have clobbered the plants they use for food and shelter.

"Chimaeras? I think I have about 10 pairs," Yoshi said.

"What do you want for those?" Nelson asked.

Kojima was silent for exactly 10 seconds. "Chimaeras come from Papua New Guinea," he said between bites. "You can get them from Indonesia easy. But in Papua New Guinea … difficult."
Nelson plowed ahead. "Because Greg wants $236 for a pair."


"I give them to you for … $70 or $80," Kojima said finally, and then laughed. "Don't buy from Greg."

"I don't, I don't, believe me," Nelson said.

They ate in silence. Kojima had ordered for them both, greasy beef and pork dishes. Newcomer, a strict vegetarian, forced it down.

"I might ask you to sell me those chimaeras," Nelson said after a time. "This would be for me. And then I'll resell them to someone else."

Kojima said he could send them by mail.

"What about customs?" Nelson asked. "Will they check it?"

"Express mail, no check."

Nelson asked if the butterflies would have permits.

"No permits." Then Kojima corrected himself. The butterflies would have permits. They just wouldn't be real.

Newcomer agreed to buy all 10 pairs.

Kojima loosened up more. He volunteered that he could get Ornithoptera alexandrae, the world's largest butterfly. It was the Holy Grail for collectors. With a wingspan the size of a football and exquisite, iridescent yellow-blue-green ring patterns, the male Queen Alexandra's birdwing is one of nature's most endangered and spectacular creatures, found in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. Alexandras are banned from trade, but Kojima said he regularly shipped them from Papua New Guinea to Europe and then on to Japan and the United States, covering his tracks by mislabeling the packages. "We write down that it's a moth," Kojima said. Customs officials "don't know better."

Newcomer's heart pounded. Maybe he hadn't blown this after all. "I wonder if any of my customers would buy an Alexandra?" he asked, as if to himself.

"You be careful," Kojima warned. "You may lead them back to me."

After lunch, Kojima asked if Nelson could give him a lift to a Japanese sauna. In the car, Kojima talked casually about butterflies from faraway lands, which he also said he could find ways to bring into the U.S. He spoke openly of the men who frequented this sauna, men who sometimes propositioned one another right in front of him. "That right?" Newcomer said, again trying to sound disinterested. He let the moment pass but made a mental note. Men visited this sauna looking for sex. The revelation implied an escalating bond of trust. After three years of trying to put Kojima away, Newcomer was suddenly making quick progress.

"Have fun in there," Newcomer teased as Kojima stepped from the car. Kojima laughed and headed inside.

— —

When they met again the next day, Kojima arrived with a gift. He pulled a small, clear plastic box from a fanny pack. Inside, Newcomer spied five small brown cocoons, illegal Papilio indra kaibabensis, from the Grand Canyon. Kojima wanted to know if Ted Nelson could get more. The indras could earn them a fortune in Japan, he said. Would Ted Nelson consider becoming Kojima's American supplier? The agent remained noncommittal, but his heart raced again. Kojima obviously trusted him — the man was asking him to commit a federal crime.

No one knows how many butterfly species are lifted from national parks in the American West, or how often, "but I can say we repeatedly hear that it's happening," Newcomer would tell me later. "There's even a recommended M.O. You use a small butterfly net that you can shove in your backpack quick, and you keep a birding book with you and binoculars so that if you're approached by a ranger or other hikers, you're all of a sudden a birdwatcher. When no one's looking, you're collecting butterflies."

Before leaving for Japan, Kojima looked over Newcomer's most-wanted list, and agreed to supply every species on it, including the rare Queen Alexandra birdwing. He also offered, unsolicited, to sell Nelson an imperiled Jamaican swallowtail. Kojima urged Nelson to set up an account on Skype so the two men could have video chats.

With an ocean between them, Kojima's confidence brimmed. He promised to send Newcomer a Queen Alexandra from his collection. On one Skype call, he held mounted, endangered Corsican swallowtails to the camera. He agreed to sell six for $700 a pair, even though they were banned from trade. Kojima confessed that his personal butterfly inventory topped a half-million dollars. He promised to send Newcomer endangered peacock swallowtails. In exchange, he wanted Arizona maps: He planned to mark areas in the Grand Canyon where Ted Nelson should start collecting. Then he offered Newcomer an extremely rare hybrid southeast Asian butterfly, Ornithoptera allotei. The price: $30,000.

Newcomer couldn't have been more pleased. Soon, his packages started rolling in. Six weeks after their reunion at the bug fair, Ted Nelson had bought $26,000 worth of illegal butterflies. Kojima had offered $300,000 more in merchandise, and now Newcomer had digital video of him committing felonies. Newcomer faced one last hurdle: his suspect was in Japan, with no immediate plans to return.

The smuggler ultimately provided the solution. The more the men talked, the bolder he grew — and the two men spoke almost daily. Kojima openly acknowledged an attraction to Ted Nelson. He made lurid comments when dickering over prices. He asked Ted Nelson to remove his shirt when showing cocoons to the camera, and though Newcomer tried to steer them back to butterflies, an idea began to percolate.

A month into their regular video chats, Newcomer saw his opening to coax Kojima back. During one conversation, Kojima groused that Ted Nelson owed him too much money. Newcomer made his play, grinning into the camera. If they could meet in person, Ted Nelson would "make it up to him." The agent let the double entendre linger.

"Really," Kojima said, drawing out the word.

"You'll just have to wait until you get back to L.A.," Newcomer said.

"You're a tease," Kojima muttered.

Newcomer laughed. "How else am I going to get you to come here?"

Two months after they reunited at the bug fair, Kojima landed at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was greeted by federal agents. In 2007 he pleaded guilty to 17 charges, but got sentenced to less than two years in federal prison. Newcomer stayed in hiding during the arrest, but visited the smuggler in jail the next day. Kojima spied the handcuffs, the badge and an empty gun holster. Newcomer saw his eyes widen in recognition. Finally the bug dealer sputtered, You're an agent?

In the end, most of what Kojiima told Newcomer proved to be lies. He had never held two passports, and he never worked for National Geographic. Once, Kojima had called Ted Nelson to say he was in the United States. He offered details of his stay in St. George, Utah. Two days later, an informant confirmed the story for Newcomer: He'd heard Kojima was collecting just hours outside St. George, in the Grand Canyon. Only later would Newcomer figure out that Kojima had been in Kyoto, Japan, the whole time.

"Yoshi knew — this was smart — that you just tell lies to everybody," Newcomer told me from his office. "You tell some truths, but always mix in some lies." And in truth the butterfly king had created a coherent world of lies. But he came up against an adversary who ran a better con.

Kojima had been at the very top, but he hadn't worked entirely alone. He'd confessed to Ted Nelson something that earlier agents had long suspected: For years, he'd gone in and out of national parks, taking butterflies from Death Valley and the Grand Canyon and sending them to Japan. But Kojima had told Nelson that was in the past. "He told me he quit doing it because he felt it was too dangerous. He thought it was too risky so he'd gotten out of it. In fact, in 2006 he was back in LA specifically to meet up with somebody who was supplying him with Papilio indra kaibabensis." Kojima had remained cagey, refusing to share his source with Nelson.

But being a federal agent is about figuring things out. When asked whether he thought Kojima's contacts were still out there gathering insects from the Grand Canyon, Special Agent Newcomer didn't hesitate.

"Yes, I do," Newcomer said. "But I believe I know who they are."

Craig Welch is the environment reporter at The Seattle Times. He's never seen Papilio indra kaibabensis in the wild, but he would like to. Shell Games, released April 6, is his first book.

For more information, visit:

Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature's Bounty, by Craig Welch

The Federal Wildlife Officers Association

Monitoring the wildlife trade: Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking and

The Congressional Research Service's recent report on wildlife trafficking and its policy implications

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species

Investigations of illegal fishing in the U.S.


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    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...