Despite the Ph.D. appended to his name, Dr. Peter Laufer is no tweed-jacketed academic. He’s a journalist with a nose for news. The author of a book I’d love to read about Americans rotting in Third World prisons, Laufer is happiest when in hot pursuit of a scoop. “I love the license [the journalist role] gives me to gain access to the closed doors of society, and I lust after the excuse for mission I get out of a project developing in my notebooks,” he writes. I totally empathize.

Which brings us to his new book, The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists. Opening closed doors, tearing back the curtain on mankind’s scarlet sins, these are things you don’t usually equate with butterflies. The inspiration for countless sappy songs (“Butterfly” by, separately, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Corrine Bailey Rae; “Butterfly Fly Away” by Hannah Montana) and movies (the maudlin Goldie Hawn vehicle Butterflies are Free, not to mention the 1981 Butterfly starring, ‘nuff said, Pia Zadora), butterflies don’t sting and they don’t lay waste to crops like locusts do. They frolic in daylight, so you don’t die a hideous incendiary death crashing into your bug light.

But did I mention that Laufer is a reporter? He ferrets out the dirt on butterflies, alright. Nothing if not intrepid (and, apparently, expense-accounted), he jets off to California, Florida, Mexico and England in search of butterfly experts and habitat.

And there is, without a doubt, a story here. The logging threat to the Monarch butterfly’s forested southern habitat in the Michoacán Mountains of Mexico was well known to me, but not that terrorists had thrown grenades into groups of tourists visiting there. So there is bloody carnage on page 77.

The heart of the book is the pitched battle between butterfly conservationists who want to study these remarkable creatures in their increasingly endangered natural habitats and the dealers and collectors who impale them on pins (or let them loose at weddings). It is a tribute to Laufer’s sympathetic ear that you may come away, as I did, seeing virtue on both sides.

Of course, there is trafficking in endangered species, and Laufer devotes a gripping chapter to it, with a special focus on Japanese dealer Yoshi Kojima, who dodged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for years before undercover agent Ed Newcomer brought him down (after, apparently, fending off a pass from the guy). Unfortunately, Kojima, now in federal prison, turned down an interview request so this part of the book is second-hand, but well-told nonetheless. There is money to be made in rare butterflies, but the motivation of men like Kojima is sometimes difficult to fathom.

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The Dangerous World of Butterflies is lively throughout, as this is an ace reporter at work. It might have been helpful if Laufer was more of a naturalist -- butterfly science doesn’t come fully alive here, and the author is more of the “isn’t that one pretty?” school. But Laufer knows a good story when he finds one, and there are plenty of them here. Did you know that, halfway between caterpillar and butterfly, these symbols of metamorphosis are essentially liquid? That the Mexican border fence threatens an important butterfly habitat? That butterflies adorned ancient Greek coins?

Look elsewhere if you want help telling the difference between Heliconius cydno and Hamadryas. This is no drab natural history tome; it’s a book by a reporter.


Jim Motavalli, a regular contributor to the New York Times, is the transportation blogger for MNN.

MNN homepage photo: gabyjalbert/iStockphoto

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Beware the butterflies
A new book pops the lid on the startling subculture of butterflies. The benign insects inspire organized crime, the smuggling of endangered species, and pitched