“Butterfly collectors with the financial means will do whatever necessary to obtain the specimens they want,” says Jessica Speart, author of the new book Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler. For some, it’s like stamp collecting. For others, it’s the equivalent of collecting a Renoir or Van Gogh.
In detailing the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) case against Hisayoshi Kojima, Speart exposes a little known target of wildlife smugglers: insects. The trade in rare butterfly species is a lucrative business. While much trade is legal, the illegal butterfly trade could be worth up to $200 million each year.
One of the largest destinations for insects is Japan. In Japan, “bugs are a national obsession,” Speart says. “Nowhere is the passion for insects greater than in Asia, and Japan is the Mecca.”
The four rarest butterflies, also known as the “big four,” are often targets for collectors. The big four includes the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae) from Papua New Guinea, which is the largest butterfly with a wingspan of 10 inches and a sales price ranging between $8,500 to $10,000 a pair. It also includes the giant swallowtail (Papilio homerus) that lives only in Jamaica, the Luzon peacock swallowtail (Papilio chikae) from the Philippines and the Corsican swallowtail (Papilio hospiton) which is endemic to Sardinia and Corsica and sells for $800 to $1,000 each.
All four are endangered and listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means international commercial trade in these species is banned. But, probably because it is illegal to catch, kill or import them, that makes collectors want them all the more.
While habitat loss is the most significant threat to butterflies, the illegal trade adds to the stress on these delicate insects – so much so that when criminals target the rare species, extinction becomes a real possibility.