Jessica Speart: Winged Obsession

“Butterflies are sensitive indicators as to the overall health of the environment. They’re the above ground equivalent of canaries in the coal mine.”

Technically, this isn’t a true crime book, as the crimes perpetrated are against butterflies, but the point Speart makes clear in her compulsively readable book is that crimes against wildlife are indeed a serious matter. A well researched, very inside look at the world of butterfly collecting and smuggling, Speart even supplies the reader with both a hero, Fish & Wildlife newbie Ed Newcomer, and a villain, Japanese butterfly smuggler Yoshi Kojima. Her threads are obsession; the virtual futility facing Wildlife enforcement officers, who are understaffed and whose punishments have little teeth; and the point that even the extinction of a butterfly causes an environmental ripple that affects us all. While the interactions between Ed and Yoshi take on the structure of an elaborate game, the stakes are high.

Speart began her writing career as a journalist, and then as a mystery writer who used wildlife smuggling as a theme. As she points out in this book, wildlife smuggling, an industry that nets millions of dollars annually, ranks only behind drugs and human trafficking in terms of profit. While this is bad enough, smugglers of critters ranging from monkeys to birds to butterflies are sometimes responsible for wiping out an entire sub species. Some butterfly collectors collect all of a certain type, and then to make sure they don’t regenerate, rip out the fauna they feed on in their native habitat. One very rare sub species, the Queen Alexandra, a butterfly as large as a bird, is so rare collectors pay up to $10,000 for one, and smugglers are stockpiling them in the event the butterflies become extinct, thus jacking up the price on the illegal market.

Speart begins her portrait with the beauty of butterflies, at an insect show in Los Angeles, one attended by our hero, Ed Newcomer. He’s on the hunt for Yoshi, who he knows is a smuggling kingpin, and he makes contact with him posing as a newbie collector who just wants to learn. As Ed, a Fish and Wildlife newbie who wants to break his first big case obsessively learns about butterflies to catch his prey, Speart also deftly illustrates the obsessiveness of the collector. Yoshi lives surrounded by butterflies, some about to hatch. When they hatch he lets them unfurl their wings and then he kills them, so they will be perfect specimens for him to sell. The terrible mark he’s leaving on the natural world makes not one bit of difference to him. It makes all the difference in the world to Ed, who is appalled when even one butterfly is killed.

To further illustrate her point, Speart also takes the reader inside the world of roller-pigeon racing, pigeons specially bred to “roll” in the air as they dive to the ground (something that sometimes kills them). The bane of the roller-pigeon afficionado is the hawk, and there are all kinds of ways fanciers kill hawks, many of which are detailed here. Ed works on this case as meticulously as he trails Yoshi through cyber space and reality, his mission fueled by his anger at the unnecessary death of thousands of hawks killed just so the racers can pursue their hobby. The hawks really “get” to the reader even more than the butterflies, and I think that’s why Speart includes the details of this investigation. In each case, Ed must go undercover in different ways to catch his own prey, something she looks at in an interesting and detailed way, pointing out the real difficulties in this type of undercover work by skillfully showing and not telling.

The portrait she paints of Yoshi resembles another true crime masterpiece, Thomas Thompson’s Serpentine, the story of an Asian killer who was totally without any kind of moral underpinning, a true sociopath. Yoshi is a sociopath as well, though his prey are butterflies, not people. He only cares about the money as well as his status as the most renowned of butterfly collectors and smugglers. As Speart details the vast sums he takes in in his illegal trade, she also details Yoshi’s somewhat pathetic lifestyle. His single minded obsession hasn’t netted him any degree of happiness or satisfaction, something beyond the realm of a true sociopath in any case. As she layers her portrait of Yoshi’s desire to teach Ed about butterflies, their “partnership” as Yoshi becomes Ed’s supplier, and Yoshi’s growing and unpleasant attraction to Ed, Yoshi becomes so indelible and creepy you’ll find it hard to forget him.

You’re also as fueled with rage as Speart at the destruction to the natural world wrought by smugglers and collectors like Yoshi, who only want to own or sell the finest specimen. His final punishment seems shockingly meager, and while he’s banned from the U.S., Yoshi lives in Japan where the laws aren’t as stringent. Speart herself became so obsessed with Yoshi she actually travels to meet him in a kind of coda at the end of the book. While the book isn’t littered with human corpses as in a traditional true crime story, the corpses of the butterflies must number in the hundreds of thousands. You’ll be as frustrated and fascinated by Speart’s remarkable story as I was.