Monday, August 20, 2007

A global network of poachers

Illegal trade in endangered species is worth billions of dollars

Smuggled butterflies at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters in California in this recent photo.

LOS ANGELES: The smell struck undercover agent Ed Newcomer as soon as he entered the small, sparse apartment.

Faint and rancid, it permeated everything. It clung to the plastic containers that piled up in cupboards and on shelves. It seeped from the walls and the bathroom and the bed.

The smell was unmistakable: dead insects.

Inside the suspect grinned expectantly as he opened a container. 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.

Mr. Newcomer shuddered. But he smiled affably. The suspect opened another box filled with dead butterflies, wings spread in iridescent glory — golds and greens and shimmering azures.

Like fairy dust, Mr. Newcomer thought. 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.

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 global network of poachers.

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. From the back of his booth, Kojima produced an enormous live horned beetle. “Wow,” Mr. Newcomer exclaimed. “How much?” $10,000 alive. Is that legal? Mr. Newcomer asked.

Kojima shrugged. “It is illegal ... but 99.99 per cent it is safe. Sometimes we pay under the table.”

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. — AP


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