In Search of the Emperor by Mary Ellen Ryall

Pavon Emperor (Doxocopa pavon)  Butterfly of Colombia, South America

Copyright permission from Kim Davis & Mike Stangeland of Butterflies of America website at

It was 2008 when I met Jose Rodriquez, a nine year old barefooted souvenir seller, in San Agustin, Colombia.  He was standing in the plaza.  The church bells were ringing and the sky was ablaze in an orange sunset.  I was on my way to Mass at the old adobe Catholic church near the square.  I stopped and asked, “What are you selling?”  He responded, “Real butterfly cards.”  He asked my name and I answered, “Brenda Estella.”  Curious I questioned him, “Where did you get the butterflies?”  Jose responded, “I catch them.  Sometimes the butterfly is old and the foreigners who ask me to catch butterflies don’t want them.  I save what I can, pull off the wings, attach them to paper with glue and sell butterfly cards to tourists.”  And so began my undercover work into butterfly pouching and smuggling in Colombia.

My employer is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). We investigate to be sure exporters have the proper license to export endangered species on the Appendix II butterflies list.  At times the thieves are active scientists or retired scientists who research butterflies at universities around the world.  Others are pouches who snatch endangered species for private collectors in Europe, Japan and the United States.  Many times a poacher will get to know and hire a local peasant to do their field work.  I asked Jose, “How did you get involved with butterflies?”  He said, “A man from Miami comes to Colombia twice a year and buys what I have collected.  Often he pays me eight dollars for each butterfly and he buys a lot of insects.”  To a peasant this is enough money to support a family in a country that is economically depressed.  Child labor is common in Third World countries.  I asked, “Do you expect to see him anytime soon?”

Jose answered, “Matter of fact, he is here in our Andean village now.”  San Agustin is home to orchids and an archeology park of stone sculptures dating between AD 100 and 1200. The park is now a UNESCO’s World Heritage Place.  The mountainous village at 7,000 feet is also home to coffee and banana subsistence farmers.  Agricultural doesn’t pay as much money as coca leaves for export.  Drug wars have torn San Agustin apart with fear, drug lords and animal poachers.  I know my prey is Federico Perez, a wanted butterfly thief, and I am ready to start surveillance.  In this high tech world, I use a laptop computer for research, documentation, and staying in touch with CITES.  I use GPS for finding locations and a high power camera lens to photograph the enemy without his knowing.  I have to pretend that I am a butterfly collector and gain his trust before I am able to persuade him to show his collection. 

I learn he is staying at Senora Munos home where we both have lodging.  At dinner, we struck up a conversation and got acquainted with each other.  Mrs. Munos announced, “Senorita Estella is a butterfly collector.”  After dinner Federico asked, “So what are you really doing in San Agustin?”  I answered, “I am here to collect an Emperor and take it back to the United States.”  Federico in a coconspirator kind of way asked, “Would you like to see my butterfly collection.”  I said, “Yes,” and he went to his room to fetch his collection.  Federico showed me not only the Emperor but some endangered species on the Appendix II butterflies list.  He told me, “This is my last night.  I am boarding a plane in Bogota tomorrow for Miami.” Obtaining the critical information I needed, I called my employer, CITES, who will meet him at the airport with a warrant for his arrest if he doesn’t have the proper license for exporting butterflies.  Federico caught the plane the next day and landed in Miami without incident.  The customs agent on duty had already been alerted to the butterfly sting operation and searched his luggage.  Within the pages of a book, The Dangerous World of Butterflies, the agent found the butterfly collection and no license for exporting them.  CITES agents were on him within a minute and took him into custody.  This is now one less poacher on the streets but my job in Colombia is not over yet.  We are in a Third World country doing our best to save the beloved butterfly from extinction.



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