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Jessica Speart


The Price Of Obsession: Black Market Butteflies (PHOTOS)

Posted: 04/05/11 08:12 AM ET

Most people view butterflies as beautiful, angelic creatures. Then there are those who regard them as dollar signs with wings. Serious collectors are willing to pay high prices for the most desirable of the species. As a result, butterfly smuggling has become a booming underground trade.

So, who lusts after butterflies, anyway?

Wealthy collectors pay young catchers to parachute onto remote South Pacific islands. There they gather butterflies so rare most museums only dream of them. Meanwhile, poaching gangs roam central Asia, and other parts of the world, as helicopters scour Russian mountaintops in search of their elusive prey. There are even rumors of vaults in Japan filled with hundreds of one of the most treasured butterflies, Queen Alexandra's Birdwing. Commercial dealers stow them away in anticipation that they'll soon disappear. Once that happens, their price will skyrocket. Think of it as the wildlife trade's version of the future's exchange. Dealers are betting on extinction.

My new book, "Winged Obsession" (William Morrow), tells the tale of Yoshi Kojima, the world's most notorious and successful butterfly smuggler. A wily con artist, Kojima eluded arrest for over ten years. He finally met his match in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent Ed Newcomer. Kojima was caught in a web of his own making - one tinged with sex, greed and obsession.

ORNITHOPTERA CROESUS: $200 - $280 per pair
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Alfred Rusel Wallace first observed this butterfly during a visit to northern Maluku in 1859. However, it took him three months to catch an Ornithoptera Croesus. Wallace must have brushed up on his netting skills, because he caught more than a hundred of these butterflies shortly after. The butterfly is commonly known as Wallace's Golden Birdwing.
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