In exotic world of butterfly poaching, agent immerses himself to net a prize

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The suspect lived in a white stucco building on the western edge of town. Small and dark, his apartment contained no pictures, no food, few personal effects.

Just slim plastic boxes, dozens of them, piled high in cupboards and on shelves and in the refrigerator.

And a smell. Faint and rancid, it permeated everything, clinging to the walls and the bathroom and the bed, clinging even to the suspect himself.

To undercover agent Ed Newcomer the smell was unmistakable.

The apartment reeked of dead insects.

Inside, the suspect grinned excitedly as he opened a container and gently poked the contents. Dozens of slimy white grubs slithered in the dirt. Another box revealed a dead black beetle the size of a fist, its long rhinoceros-like horn protruding in front.

"Dynastes hercules," the suspect said, his voice high-pitched and shrill. His fingernails were long and black.

Newcomer shuddered. Even as a child, bugs had always creeped him out.

But he smiled affably, the wide-eyed neophyte being inducted by the master. It was a role that Newcomer, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had been perfecting for two weeks. He was becoming familiar with the names: Dynastes satanus, Teinopalpus aureus, Ornithoptera croesus.

He was becoming familiar with the smell.

The suspect opened another box, this one filled with dead butterflies, wings spread in iridescent glory - golds and greens and shimmering azures.

Like fairy dust, Newcomer thought.

Then he snapped back to reality.

Newcomer's tape recorder had accidentally shut off. His cell phone was broken. His backup agent had lost him in traffic. If the backup couldn't make contact soon, he would call the police.

It was Newcomer's first undercover case.

He had won the trust of the world's most notorious butterfly smuggler, a man who made hundreds of thousands of dollars trading in endangered insects. He had been invited into the suspect's home.

Yet if he didn't leave in minutes his cover could be blown.


Queen Alexandra's birdwing is one of the largest and rarest of butterflies. It has a wingspan up to 1 foot and is found flying above the rainforest in Papua New Guinea. The male is luminous green and blue, the female pale brown. Listed as endangered, a pair can sell for more than $10,000 on the black market.


In the cutthroat world of butterfly poaching, Hisayoshi Kojima was king.

He bragged he was the Indiana Jones of butterfly smugglers, that he commanded a network of poachers around the globe.

From Jamaica he could get the giant swallowtail Papilio homerus, whose velvety black and gold wings are depicted on the country's $1,000 bank note.

From the Philippines he could get the Luzon peacock swallowtail or Papilio chikae.

And from Papua New Guinea he could get what many dealers had never even seen: the prized Queen Alexandra's birdwing.

All are endangered, protected by international and U.S. wildlife laws. It is illegal to catch, kill or import them.

Kojima always found a way.

Legitimate dealers had complained about him for years.

And for years, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents had investigated him.

But Kojima, a Japanese native who lived in Los Angeles and Kyoto, always eluded capture.

Kojima boasted openly about his narrow escapes, how he was once stopped by customs in Mexico with a briefcase full of live beetles (he pretended to be working for National Geographic magazine), how agents had once searched his house in Los Angeles.

"He was a known bad guy," said supervising agent Marie Palladini, who ran the Los Angeles office. "But he was also very paranoid, and clever."

When an informant tipped her that Kojima would be attending the annual insect fair at Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in May 2003, she gave the case to Newcomer. "Go for it," she told him.

At 37, Newcomer had just joined the service after working for

the attorneys general of Colorado and Washington state. He knew nothing about butterflies. But he knew the law. And under the law a Queen Alexandra is as protected as a rare snow leopard.


"I can show you how to make money on butterflies."

It was the first day of the insect fair, and Kojima had been easy to spot. In the cavernous exhibition hall, where thousands of collectors swarmed among booths filled with everything from gold scarab beetles to red-backed spiders, Kojima ran the busiest stall.

"He's no Indiana Jones," Newcomer thought, sizing up the stocky 53-year-old with the pudgy face, narrow eyes and bushy black eyebrows. Kojima's English was poor, his manner nervous and excitable.

But his butterflies were the finest at the fair.

Newcomer is trim and athletic, with sandy hair and hazel eyes and an easygoing manner. He had left behind his gun, his badge and his wedding band. He had assumed a false name. And he had honed his story: how, bored by the marine business he had inherited from his father, he was looking for a hobby that could also become an investment.

The informant played his part, luring Kojima into conversation about a species of beetle from Bolivia that Kojima had on display.

Newcomer wondered what the beetle looked like alive.

Kojima's eyes darted around the hall. He motioned Newcomer to the back of his booth.

From a small cage, he pulled out an enormous horned live beetle.

"Wow," Newcomer exclaimed. "How much?"

$10,000 alive.

Is that legal? Newcomer asked.

Kojima shrugged. "It is illegal ... but 99.99 percent it is safe. Sometimes we pay under the table."

At the end of the day Kojima handed Newcomer a cardboard box. Inside, were 23 dead butterflies. They were not rare, he said. But they would be enough to start Newcomer's collection.

Newcomer thanked Kojima profusely. Then he drove to his office, photographed the butterflies and marked the box - Evidence Seizure Tag #608372.


The Papilio hospiton favors grassy hilltops and sips nectar from thistles. Found only in Corsica and Sardinia, the yellow and brown swallowtail is one of Europe's most endangered insects. Price on the black market: $1,000 or more.


Butterfly collecting has come a long way since the Victorian caricature of ruddy-faced Englishmen in khaki shorts bounding across the countryside with enormous nets.

These days the worldwide illegal trade in endangered species is worth an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion a year, according to law enforcement reports.

It can be as perilous as it is lucrative.

"We've been bushwhacked and waylaid and run out of villages by guys with bows and arrows and spears," said Joshua Lewallen of Insects International in Fort Davis, Texas. Lewallen sells more than 11,000 species of insects, including 3,500 species of butterflies.

Like other legitimate dealers, he follows rainy seasons and collect insects freshly hatched.

Lewallen has heard the tales - of insect "mafias" in Thailand, and poaching gangs in Central Asia and daring helicopter rides to mountaintop butterflies in Russia.

"Collectors want rare things," Lewallen said. "And if people are willing to pay, others are willing to go to great lengths to provide the commodity."

Into this world, Newcomer immersed himself. He read about rare butterflies and the insect trade, clicked on Web sites, talked to experts.

He studied the "material", as dealers call their insects. Mourning whites and Cloudless Sulphers and El Segundo Blues. There are about 18,000 known species of butterfly. Newcomer started learning their names, their markings, the prices that rare ones bring.

At work Newcomer became known as "the butterfly agent." Undercover, he was becoming "Yoshi's friend."

They met for coffee at Starbucks on a Venice boulevard. They went to Kojima's favorite Korean barbecue restaurant. They shared personal details, each spinning tales, each cautiously probing for more.

Kojima fabricated a wife and son in Japan.

Newcomer invented a father and girlfriends.

Kojima boasted how he had raised Siamese betta fighting fish and how he had once owned a butterfly farm in Costa Rica.

Always Newcomer listened and marveled and coaxed him for more. Always he wore a wire.

Kojima showed Newcomer how to fold butterflies in wax paper for shipping. He taught him the delicate art of moistening the wings of dead butterflies so they could be unfolded and pinned precisely to mounting boards.

Kojima shrugged off the law. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) special permits are required to transport endangered animals across borders. CITES also bans the worldwide trade of species that are on the verge of extinction.

It wasn't like he was dealing in drugs, Kojima said.

Kojima suggested that the two men start an eBay account together: Kojima would provide the specimens and Newcomer would run the Internet side. As part of the deal Kojima gave Newcomer a disc containing photographs of his entire collection.

On July 7, 2003, Kojima returned to Japan, promising to send samples.

Newcomer alerted U.S. Customs. Then he served subpoenas for Kojima's U.S. bank accounts.


The Parnassius apollo, is also known as the "great eye" for the red, black-edged marks on its translucent silvery wings. Found in several European mountain ranges, it is endangered.


Nearly four months had passed and Newcomer was beginning to feel like a teenager, constantly waiting by the phone. He had given Kojima a fake home address and a special cell phone number. He e-mailed. He called. Nothing.

The undercover agent was baffled. Did Kojima suspect him?

Finally, he saw his chance. Trolling the chat rooms of, he noticed other dealers complaining that Kojima was untrustworthy.

Newcomer jumped in. He could vouch for "Yoshi," he wrote. He was working with him and could get anything from his collection.

Four dealers contacted Newcomer immediately. Proudly, Newcomer e-mailed Kojima, telling him he'd found new customers and asking for specimens - from Morpho helena, named after Helen of Troy, to Ornithoptera goliath, the world's second largest butterfly.

But instead of being pleased, Kojima got mad, berating Newcomer, warning him not to trust people he had not developed a relationship with. They could be undercover agents, Kojima said.

It would be seven months before Kojima resumed contact.

Newcomer played the waiting game until eventually his patience wore thin.

He decided to set up a decoy eBay account. He would use butterfly photographs from the disc that Kojima had given him and rig auctions so that the specimens would go for exorbitant prices to other undercover officers. He would prove to Kojima, once and for all, that he was serious about making money in the butterfly business.

Once again, the plan backfired. Once again the butterfly smuggler became furious.

If Newcomer offered a pair of Goliath samson on eBay, Kojima would instantly post Goliaths on his Web site at a cheaper price. If Newcomer offered a Morpho cypris, Kojima would undercut him.

Kojima told other dealers that his specimens were superior to Newcomer's. He wrote angry notes to Newcomer accusing him of stealing his photographs.

"Shame on you," Kojima wrote in an e-mail on June 17, 2004. "Comming soon big trable. Not your friend, Yoshi."

Newcomer could hardly believe it. His case was falling apart.

And then the local game warden's office called and told him about a tip it had received from a Japanese insect dealer who mistakenly thought he was contacting Fish and Wildlife.

Newcomer listened, stunned.

Kojima had turned him in.


Palladini was reassuring. "He'll he back," she said. "Just wait it out."

For two years Newcomer turned to other cases, tracking dead hawks and illegal piranha. But he couldn't get the butterfly smuggler out of his head.

Then in May 2006, he was tipped that Kojima was at the Los Angeles bug fair. Newcomer had nothing to lose. He took off his wedding band, put on his wire, and headed to the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.

To his astonishment, Kojima hailed him warmly. He had had open heart surgery, Kojima explained, which is why he had been out of touch. And he had moved back permanently to Japan.

In no time they were lunching on Korean barbecue and talking deals. Kojima's latest scheme was highly illegal: poaching the Papilio indra kaibabensis - native black and white swallowtails from Grand Canyon National Park. Japanese collectors, he said, would pay $500 for an American indra.

For his part, Newcomer pretended to have built up a trusted base of customers, including one who would pay top dollar for a Queen Alexandra.

"I can get you Alexandra," Kojima said.

Newcomer held his breath. This was what he'd waited so long to hear.

Kojima suggested setting up accounts with Skype, an Internet phone service. Using his Web camera, Kojima would show specimens from Japan that Newcomer could purchase and sell to his customers.

"Time to get some buy money," Newcomer thought, as Kojima headed back to Japan.


Ornithoptera croesus helios is a black and orange birdwing from the rainforests of Indonesia. Upon seeing one, the 19th century English lepidopterist Alfred Russell Wallace wrote: "My heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt ... like fainting." The endangered beauty sells for $2,000 on the black market.


Newcomer's heart was pounding. He was staring at a grainy image of Kojima on his computer screen. Breathlessly the butterfly smuggler was explaining how he could get two of the biggest Alexandra ever. But Newcomer had to pay now.

How much?


It was mid-July. After a month of Skype exchanges Newcomer had already spent about $6,000 on butterflies, including $1,800 for Ornithoptera croesus helios.

A pair of Queens was all he needed to bring Kojima down.

Newcomer feigned nervousness about the price. He would pay half now, he said, and the rest when Kojima came to Los Angeles.

The package arrived by express mail a few days later. Buried beneath a dozen common butterflies, were two Queen Alexandras, folded but still breathtaking.

Carefully, Newcomer unwrapped them. He gazed at them for a long time. He wondered about what else was being lost when delicate creatures like these were being hunted into extinction.

He wondered about Kojima.

Their many Skype calls made Newcomer increasingly repulsed by the butterfly smuggler's world.

During one exchange Kojima had stopped in mid-conversation, leaping up to pluck a butterfly as it emerged from its chrysalis. Though he couldn't see what happened next, Newcomer presumed the smuggler killed it immediately by pinching its abdomen. A butterfly that never flies has perfect wings.

But things had taken another turn.

Kojima's conversations had become more and more personal. It became clear that he wasn't just interested in butterflies. He was interested in Newcomer.

The agent played it coy, suggesting that they discuss their relationship when Kojima came back to Los Angeles.

Kojima promised to come right away. It was the end of July. Newcomer had spent $14,997 on 42 butterflies. He'd carefully recorded all specimens Kojima had offered him - including one rare hybrid for $30,000 - and the estimated black market value of everything, sold and offered, amounted to as much as $294,000.

Newcomer had all the proof he needed.

Kojima would be arrested as soon as he returned to the U.S.


On July 23, Kojima called on Skype from his Kyoto apartment and said he was in the airport about to board a plane to L.A.

"No you're not, Yoshi," Newcomer blurted out. "I can see you."

Kojima slammed down the phone.

Newcomer could have kicked himself. He knew Kojima always lied about his travel plans. What if he canceled his trip?

Next Newcomer got a tip that Kojima was collecting swallowtails on the north rim of the Grand Canyon where indra kaibabensis flutter over rock parsley. But when park rangers dashed to the scene, they found no trace.

Where the heck was Kojima? Had he outfoxed them one more time?

Finally, on July 31, Newcomer learned from a Customs agent that Kojima was about to land in Los Angeles. The undercover agent raced to the airport. From behind a pillar, he watched.

The butterfly smuggler walked through customs carrying a slim wooden box filled with butterflies. He told officers who arrested him that it was a gift for Newcomer.

When he saw Newcomer, Kojima at first seemed relieved, as though his friend had come to bail him out.

Then he spotted Newcomer's badge - and his wedding band.

Were you "Fish and Wild" since the first day we met? Kojima asked.

Yes, Newcomer replied.

And you're married?


Kojima pleaded guilty to 17 charges related to the sale and smuggling of endangered butterflies. This April, he was sentenced to 21 months in prison and fined $38,731.

He declined a request to discuss the case.


At his office, Newcomer displays boxes of butterflies of every size and color. Dazzling electric blue morphos and blazing yellow and green paradesia. He holds up a framed pair, their wings as big as small birds'. The Queen Alexandras. Eventually, they will be donated to a museum.

For now, Newcomer has a rare chance to admire a butterfly that most people have never seen.

Newcomer shies away from being labeled the "butterfly agent" but he acknowledges a new appreciation for the species. On a recent hike he spotted a little grey butterfly with orange spots whose wings were caught in a spider web. Strymon melinus, also known as the Common Hairstreak.

Gently, Newcomer freed it and watched it fly away.
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