Novelist Jessica Speart to talk this week about endangered species trade

jpaprocki@islandpacket.comJanuary 22, 2012 

  • Jessica Speart is giving a lecture about the endangered species trade at 3 p.m. Jan. 25 at the Coastal Discovery Museum. Cost is $5 a person. Reservations required. Details: 843-689-6767

The butterfly effect theorizes that something as small as the flap of a butterfly's wings can create something as large as a tornado halfway across the globe.

Mystery novelist Jessica Speart didn't know too much about the world of endangered butterfly smuggling when she first heard the case of Hisayoshi Kojima, the man who liked to think of himself as the Indiana Jones of the trade. But, as unlikely as it seems that something as small as the delicate flap of a wing can cause such grand results, Speart found herself traveling halfway across the globe into potential danger -- all because of a butterfly.

She writes about it in "Winged Obsession," her nonfiction book that delves into the world of endangered butterflies and the men who hunt them.

"I became as obsessed with this story as Yoshi was with capturing these butterflies and as much as the wildlife agent was with catching Yoshi," she said. "It became this interesting circle. Every time I thoI was done, I'd find a new piece of information that caused me to start again."

One piece connected to another piece and soon enough it led Speart to the doorstep of her elusive subject. She hunted down Kojima, and much to her surprise, he took her in.

Speart is in the Lowcountry this week to talk about her foray into the endangered butterfly trade. She speaks Jan. 25 at the Coastal Discovery Museum and Jan. 26 at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort's Lunch With Author Series.

Speart, a New Jersey native who now resides in Connecticut, has had an interest in endangered animals since a trip to Africa, where she learned of elephant and rhino poachers. She shed her fledgling acting career in New York and began freelance writing. She sold environmental pieces to the likes of Mother Jones and National Wildlife. She went on to write mysteries, producing the 10-part Rachel Porter series. It was around the time the series was ending that she heard about Kojima, who had been busted in Los Angeles for trafficking in butterflies. The more she read about the story, the more intrigued she became with the twists and turns of the case.

"The story was so odd that no one would believe it if I made it fiction," she said. "It had to be nonfiction."

She connected with Ed Newcomer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who worked undercover to befriend Kojima and build a case against him. He introduced her to the billion-dollar business of butterfly smuggling, where some species, such as the giant swallowtail Papilio homerus of Jamaica, can fetch about $12,000 a pair.

Speart already had a compelling story about the relationship between agent and smuggler (as it turned out, one of the reasons Newcomer was able to develop a strong relationship with Kojima was that the smuggler had developed a bit of a crush). But she kept pursuing the story. Kojima spent 21 months in prison only to return to Japan to start his business once again. Nobody had been able to interview him.

"What would really put a period on this story was meeting the man himself," she said. "No matter what happened it would be an ending to the story."

Speart boarded a plane to Kyoto. She planned to just show up at his door. She figured she had a 50-50 shot he'd actually be there -- the chances of him actually letting her in were even more slim.

"I knew he wouldn't speak to me if I was Jessica Speart," she said. "He was smart. He could go on the Internet and figure out who I was. I went undercover and became his new best friend."

She details the relationship in the book and her personal obsession, the way a story about butterflies stirred something strong within. She disguised herself by relying on her experience as an actress and her research on special agents for her mystery series.

"I was living vicariously," she said. "You get so caught up in a story, the adrenaline takes over and you think, 'What a great story.' But you don't think, 'Why am I doing this?'

"I understand obsession. You can have an obsession with anything. With these collectors, you have to have that butterfly for your life to be complete. It takes over their lives."

She hasn't heard from Kojima since the book has been published. He may be upset; he may be appreciative.

"I know he knows about the book. I got emails from people in Japan who (say so)," she said. "When he was caught, he was embarrassed. But I know he was secretly thrilled. It sort of made him this rock star of butterflies.

"I just hope he doesn't show up at my house one day -- with a very large net."

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