The illegal trafficking of butterflies brings in around $200 million a year. The kingpin of butterfly smuggling is a man named Yoshi Kojima — he had butterfly collectors all over the world, and he knew his way around every rule and regulation. In her new book, Winged Obsession, author Jessica Speart follows a rookie agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who goes undercover to bust Yoshi Kojima. And she tells host Steve Curwood how she, too, went undercover to meet with this notorious butterfly trafficker.
CURWOOD: Jessica Speart writes mysteries. She's the author of the “Rachel Porter” series, which features an agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who hunts down smugglers and poachers. Sometimes, though, a real life story comes along that's even stranger than fiction, they say.
That's the genesis of Speart's new non-fiction sleuth story "Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World's Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler.” She says writing this non-fiction thriller wasn't so different from writing her mysteries.
SPEART: All of my mysteries involved endangered species, my protagonist was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent. This is what I’ve done all my life. Even before writing mysteries, I was doing journalism, I was specializing in wildlife law enforcement and endangered species. So it’s just taking it from one format to the next.
CURWOOD: The butterfly trafficking business is a pretty big business, what, some 200 million dollars a year.
SPEART: Yeah. Word has it, it’s 200 million dollars a year. And when you start looking at the prices for butterflies, it begins to make sense. Queen Alexandra’s, which are the big beautiful birdwings, Papua New Guinea, they’re the largest butterfly, they will go for $10,000 dollars a pair. I’ve even heard of butterflies, dealers have told me that it’s nothing for obsessive collectors to spend $60,000 dollars on butterflies.
CURWOOD: Whoa! Who would pay 60 grand for a butterfly? I mean, who are these people?
SPEART: Somebody with a lot of money that is totally obsessed. I mean, there are crazy collectors out there.
CURWOOD: And these butterflies are…dead.
SPEART: They are dead. You have to kill them almost immediately as soon as their wings open and begin to harden so that you have a perfect, perfect specimen with no scratches, no tears. And the only way to get that is to do it soon after they hatch.
CURWOOD: So tell me about this notorious butterfly smuggler. His name is Yoshi Kojima.
SPEART: He’s a Japanese national, and Yoshi ended up coming over here after college, coming over to the United States, and he would prowl around National Parks, especially around the northern rim of the Grand Canyon in the ‘90s. There’s a butterfly called the Papilio indra kaibabensis that they love in Japan.
He would go into certain areas and he would just wipe them out. And it wasn’t even that it was totally illegal to collect some of these. It was just the extent that Yoshi did it. He hammered away at legal U.S. butterflies. There was one called the Apache Fritillary, which is one of California’s largest and prettiest butterflies that’s on this restricted range of the Sierra eastern slope. He caught 500 of them in two days and shipped them to Japan for sale.
CURWOOD: Uh huh, so Yoshi Kojima is the Mr. Big of the international butterfly trade.
SPEART: Yoshi was so famous. There’s something called the bug fair that takes place every year in Los Angeles, at the Museum of Natural History, and each wing of the museum, the bottom floor, is filled with vendors that are selling butterflies and bugs. Yoshi used to show up there, and everybody would gather around him because they knew, you know, underneath the table, he had all these illegal butterflies he was going to sell them.
CURWOOD: And you, the mystery writer, decide to follow a rookie agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His name is, what, Ed Newcomer. You didn’t make that up, right?
SPEART: Yes, no, no. Is that a perfect name or what? (Laughs). You know…
CURWOOD: And this guy goes undercover to try to catch Yoshi Kojima. So what happens?
SPEART: Well basically his boss said, ‘we’re going to send you out there with a confidential informant who is another dealer. He’ll be wired up during the bug fair. You just stand back and watch and see what goes on.’ And Ed was watching this whole thing: The dealer would go and talk to Yoshi and then the dealer would go back to his own vendor table.
And finally, Ed got really bored with just standing around and he started going around the museum looking at all the vendors’ tables, and naturally he’s drawn to Yoshi, where everybody else is. And he started asking Yoshi questions about butterflies and said he would like to collect butterflies. And Yoshi began a whole conversation with him. Ed went back, walking around again. At the end of the day, he feels a little tap on his shoulder and he turns around and there’s Yoshi with a box of butterflies. And he says, ‘Here, this is to help you start your collection.’ And on top of the box was Yoshi’s phone number. And he said, ‘Contact me.’
CURWOOD: And so begins this rookie agent. He goes undercover, first real big investigation. I won’t give away the secrets of this story because you are a mystery storyteller and you certainly do crank in a fair amount of suspense and the reader has to wonder what’s gonna happen next. I will give away a little bit that, not only is this about butterflies, but there’s something in here about sex.
SPEART: Yes, what doesn’t… you know, you need that for a good story. But I’ll tell you, this story is so much stranger than fiction, the truth. I became obsessed with Yoshi because it was such a dark, quirky, weird tale. And the more I learned about this, the more obsessed I became with Kojima, and that’s where it started getting interesting. Because Kojima had already been in prison, here in the States, and was sent back to Japan and refused to speak to anyone.
CURWOOD: So you go to Japan to try to find Yoshi Kojima –
CURWOOD: Why did you go?
SPEART: The more I dug into this, I began to learn more and more about Yoshi that even law enforcement didn’t know. And I began to meet some of his quirky friends and hearing other stories, and I felt the only way to end this story, for me to be satisfied that I had truly told the story, was to go and meet Yoshi. How could I not? How could he just be this mystery figure that I’ve seen on undercover Skype tapes?
I studied those tapes for hundreds of hours. I knew him inside out. I knew every one of his lies. I had to put that period on the end of the sentence, and that was going to see Yoshi. And so I did go undercover. And I managed to stake him out, to quote unquote, “bump into him” ¬– and become friends with him. We would go out for coffee, we would go out for dinner, to the point where he wanted me to be his liaison over here in the States for the illegal trade. And that’s when it really started getting strange.
CURWOOD: All these years you’ve written mysteries.
SPEART: Uh huh.
CURWOOD: So you can never actually hop into the investigation of a mystery because it doesn’t exist, it’s your fantasy.
CURWOOD: In this case, you decided really to become the gumshoe that you’ve been writing about.
SPEART: Yeah, I did. I mean, I have lived vicariously through Rachel Porter, my character, for years. And with each book that I’ve done, I’ve always gone out into the field, riding shotgun with an agent, learning the area, learning the problems, all about the endangered species there. And this was taking it… yes, this was taking it a step much further. And in a sense I was a little bit scared by it, but I couldn’t not do it.
CURWOOD: I have to ask you: So what did Yoshi Kojima say to you after he figured out that you too were, you know, gaming him?
SPEART: Well Steve, this is the interesting part. As far as I know, he – maybe he has figured it out now since this book came out – but he hadn’t. What happened was I was feeling so guilty when I was doing this because he was actually being very nice to me. And I started thinking, how can I do this to this nice man? He’s the one person in Japan who’s befriended me, how do I betray him?
And the last night that we went out to dinner, that’s when he started saying, ‘You know, I would really like to sell my butterflies on eBay, but I don’t know how to work eBay. Do you know how to work eBay?’ Now this guy knows how to work internet auction sites. He’s got his stuff up all over Japan, everywhere. This is what he had done with Ed Newcomer, because he wanted Ed Newcomer to take the fall if he was caught. And suddenly, I saw the same game happening.
But what’s not in the book is that when I came home, we continued to Skype for quite awhile until Yoshi began to push harder and harder and harder. He wanted me to get butterflies from dealers in the States here for him. Because dealers didn’t want to deal with him anymore, they didn’t – you know, he was a hot potato. He figured I could get them, and he was going, ‘Silly rules, silly regulations, don’t worry, you’ll never be caught.’ He wanted me to send them by express mail, and he would pay me by PayPal. And that’s when I spoke to one of my friends who’s an undercover agent, and he said, ‘Abort, get out, enough, it’s the end.’ And that’s when my relationship with Yoshi came to an end.
CURWOOD: Jessica Speart’s new book is called “Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler.” Thank you so much.
SPEART: Thank you, Steve!
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