IMAGE: RARE BUTTERFLIES
Kevork Djansezian  /  AP
Undercover agent Ed Newcomer og the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service displays endangered Ornithoptera Alexandrae butterflies, the male butterfly on top, at his office in Torrance, Calif. Also known as Queen Alexandra's Birdwing, the butterfly is among the largest and rarest in the world. It has a wingspan up to one foot and is found flying high above the rainforest in Papua New Guinea. A pair can sell for more than $10,000 on the black market.
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updated 8/20/2007 3:16:26 PM ET 2007-08-20T19:16:26

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.

Newcomer shuddered. 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.

The suspect opened another box 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 was lost 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.

——

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.

When an informant tipped off agents that Kojima would be attending the annual insect fair at Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in May 2003, Newcomer was put on the case.

The 37-year-old agent knew nothing about butterflies. But he knew the law. And under the law a Queen Alexandra butterfly is as protected as a snow leopard.

Kojima was 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 poor English.

But his butterflies were the finest at the fair.

Newcomer is trim and athletic, with an easygoing manner. He had left behind his gun and his badge. He had assumed a false name. And he had honed his story: how, bored by the 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.

From the back of his booth, Kojima produced an enormous live horned 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. To start your collection, Kojima said.

Newcomer thanked Kojima profusely. Then he drove to his office and marked the box — Evidence Seizure Tag .608372.

———

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 has heard tales of insect “mafias” in Thailand, and poaching gangs in Central Asia.

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

Into this world, Newcomer immersed himself. 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. 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 taught Newcomer 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.

Kojima returned to Japan, promising to send samples.

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

———

Nearly four months passed and Newcomer was beginning to worry.

He had given Kojima a fake home address and a special cell phone number. He e-mailed. He called. Nothing.

Finally, he saw his chance. Trolling the chat rooms of insectnet.com, he noticed other dealers complaining about Kojima. Newcomer jumped in. He could vouch for “Yoshi,” he wrote. He was working with him and could get anything from his collection.

Dealers contacted Newcomer immediately. Proudly, Newcomer e-mailed Kojima, telling him he’d found new customers and asking for specimens.

But instead of being pleased, Kojima got mad. He berated 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.

Eventually Newcomer decided to set up a decoy eBay account. He would use butterfly photographs from the disc 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.

Kojima 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.”

Next, the local game warden’s office called and told Newcomer 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.

For two years Newcomer turned to other cases. 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.

To Newcomer’s 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 permanently to Japan.

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.

A month later Newcomer found himself staring at a grainy image of Kojima on his computer screen. Breathlessly, Kojima was offering two Alexandras. But he needed money now.

How much? Newcomer asked.

$8,500.

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

It was the end of July. Newcomer had spent $14,997 on 42 butterflies in two months of Skype exchanges. He estimated the black market value of all the butterflies that Kojima had offered him at $294,000.

Newcomer had all the proof he needed.

Kojima was arrested at Los Angeles airport on July 31, 2006. He 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 holds up a framed pair of butterflies, 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 butterfly whose wings were caught in a spider web.

Gently, Newcomer freed it and watched it fly away.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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