The Dangerous World of Butterflies NPR coverage of The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists by Peter Laufer. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo The Dangerous World of Butterflies

The Dangerous World of Butterflies

The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists

by Peter Laufer

Hardcover, 271 pages, Globe Pequot Pr, List Price: $24.95 |


Buy Featured Book

The Dangerous World of Butterflies
The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists
Peter Laufer

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Book Summary

The author of Mission Rejected describes the author's unexpected encounters in the darker world of butterflies, where he learned about the roles of organized crime, ecological destruction, and natural-history-museum dynamics that are influencing their survival.

Read an excerpt of this book

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Dangerous World Of Butterflies

The Dangerous World of Butterflies

The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists

The Lyons Press

Copyright © 2009 Peter Laufer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59921-555-6


Introduction: A Relentless Quest for Tranquility..........................................ixChapter One: Off to Nicaragua and an Introduction to Lepidoptera..........................1Chapter Two: With the Purists Where Butterflies Fly Free..................................21Chapter Three: My Successful Commercial Butterfly Release.................................40Chapter Four: Diapause....................................................................64Chapter Five: The Flight and Plight of the Monarch........................................77Chapter Six: In Pursuit of the World's Most Wanted Butterfly Smuggler.....................103Chapter Seven: Death-defying, Globe-trotting Butterfly Hunting............................128Chapter Eight: Butterflies versus National Security.......................................155Chapter Nine: The Butterfly as Art........................................................182Chapter Ten: Creation versus Evolution....................................................204Chapter Eleven: Butterfly Resurrection....................................................228Epilogue..................................................................................253Acknowledgments...........................................................................256Endnotes..................................................................................259Index.....................................................................................263About the Author..........................................................................272

Chapter One

Off to Nicaragua and an Introduction to Lepidoptera

The Continental flight from California is headed south to Central America on a sunny winter day. I lose track of the guy I'd seen in the airport waiting room pulling Spanish for Dummies out of his bag. I had wanted to suggest he conceal it behind a newspaper page. Instead I'm chatting up one of the stewardesses.

"Where are you going?" she asks.

"Managua," I tell her.

"I don't go there anymore," she says, looking genuinely concerned about my choice of destination. "I was there the week of the elections." She's referring to the November 2006 elections that brought Sandinista Daniel Ortega back to the presidency. "We were forced to stay in our rooms by corporate security. We heard gunfire at night." She clearly wants to tell the whole story of her last trip to Nicaragua; it seems she wants to warn me. "I slept under my bed." Is she joking? It appears not, but how do you fit under a hotel room bed?

"We were told not to order room service because that's how kidnappers got into a crew room the month before. They forced the crew into a van and stripped them. Pointed machine guns at their heads. Stole everything. It was terrorism."

This is the same stewardess who, moments before, introduced a passenger to the rest of us via the intercom, announcing he was just returned from Iraq "serving his country." She organized a round of applause for him from the cabin.

* * *

Managua looks almost as grim and scruffy as when I was there last. Damage is still obvious from the 1972 earthquake that wiped out downtown. Grand tracts of the old city near Lake Managua's shore lay empty. The earthquake damaged buildings were either bulldozed and the lots left barren or they remain unrepaired and decaying, further ravaged by passing time; the city has been diluted to Los Angeles-like sprawl spreading for miles. Placards left over from the election campaign decorate the traffic circles: huge photographs of Ortega, signed "Daniel" and captioned ¡La solución! At the time La solución was still fighting charges from his stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez Murillo, that he had molested her since he was first elected president in 1979, back when she was eleven.

I spent the night at the new-to-me Holiday Inn (no gunfire, and I slept in-not under-the bed). When I was last in Managua I stayed in a pension a few blocks away from the "landmark neo-Aztec pyramid," as Lonely Planet calls the luxury hotel that was headquarters for business, government, and the international press during the Sandinista-Contra war years. It's always a good idea to avoid spending the night at the most likely target.

There is nothing new about Americans acting out their dreams and fantasies in Nicaragua. Jane Foulds was preceded by a long list of expatriates, and there were plenty of her contemporary fellow Americans seeking their Nicaraguan fortunes while she was busy developing her mariposario-U.S. soldiers building a clinic and a school at the invitation of the government, investors looking for a cheaper tropical alternative to Costa Rica, surfers searching for the perfect wave, and plenty of graying military pensioners seeking the companionship of chiquitas happy to help them spend their Yankee dollars. One of the oddest of the earlier bunch was William Walker. He and his private army invaded Nicaragua and managed not only to occupy Granada, but to get himself elected president. Back home (Walker hailed from Nashville), his president, Franklin Pierce, quickly and officially recognized the rogue regime. Walker's Nicaragua unsuccessfully attacked Costa Rica and Walker went home to Nashville in defeat, only to return to Central America and try to rebuild his empire. His last adventure was an invasion of Honduras, but rather than elect him president the Hondurans stood him up against a wall in front of a firing squad. He was executed in 1860. The U.S. Marines spent much of the first few decades of the twentieth century occupying Nicaragua, an operation attacked repeatedly by forces Augusto César Sandino led with his original Sandinistas.

* * *

I hail a taxi that looks in good enough condition to make it down the Pan American highway the hour or so toward Granada, reputed to be the oldest European city in the New World, founded by the Spanish in 1524. Jane's husband Gerry picks me up with the old Land Cruiser, looking in better shape than she described it in the email. I've been hanging out at Kathy's Waffle House across from the fading blue Convento San Francisco. Kathy's is another gringo dream: Sandy Perkoff founded the café with his Nicaraguan wife Kathy, she a couple of generations younger than he. In Granada I met several other crotchety American graybeards sporting nubile Nica wives. Sandy and I sit on the crowded porch of Kathy's, a prime meeting spot for Granada's landed gentry and its tourists, he ogling young Nica women promenading the Calle Cervantes and me securing his patter into my notebook, including why he likes living the ex-pat life in Granada. "I don't have to follow my dog with a baggie." He points to the church, "He just goes across and shits in the courtyard." He employs a long litany of other reasons life far from his American roots suits him just fine, from cheap real estate to pretty women.

Daniel Ortega wasn't the only headliner in trouble with the law at the time. Eric Volz, another American from Tennessee, was on trial for murdering his girlfriend. Unlike William Walker, he didn't invade to control land, he traded it as a real estate agent, selling coast-side Nicaraguan properties to retiring Yankees. He barely escaped a lynch mob before being found guilty and sentenced to thirty years. "I am in prison, but the prison is not in me," he told the Washington Post. "I have learned that I can endure." Endure he did until an appeals court overturned his conviction and he was released several months later, and left Nicaragua. Good thing, says Sandy Perkoff from his perch at Kathy's, calling Central American prison time "the same as dying, only slower." He knows, he says, from his first-hand experiences in solitary in Costa Rica on marijuana possession charges.

Perkoff is a restaurateur and a real estate agent; selling real estate to gringos is big business. The spur off the Pan American Highway that leads to Granada is lined with teasers, billboards for real estate offices-in English. At the Managua Holiday Inn developers have been holding a trade show. "Live Your Dream," suggests Gran Pacific Nicaragua, with a slick full-color brochure that promises, "Nicaragua emerged from the dark cloud of civil war that ended in 1989 to become a beacon of success ... easily accesible [sic], safe, beatiful [sic], inexpensive, and business opportunities are timely." Especially for copy editors.

As I look around the neighborhood Jane Foulds calls home, it and its characters appear to me as pages out of Graham Greene. Including Jane. Perkoff knows her. "Oh, yeah," he says, "the Butterfly Lady."

* * *

Gerry Foulds and I head out of Granada. I should have paid better attention to the route when he hit the dirt road past the cemetery; it might have prevented me from getting lost the next day when I was traveling back to the mariposario, the butterfly reserve. We bounce a couple of miles toward Laguna de Apoyo and pull into his and Jane's driveway past a subtle marker that reads, Quinta de Gringa, the gringo lady's country house. A multicolored butterfly flag flutters from the side of the main house, which is set far back from the dirt road. Jane had warned me it was, as she called it, "rustic." But she looks comfortable settled in a caned rocking chair on the porch, wearing a bright blue tie-dyed T-shirt adorned with the image of a big blue butterfly. After just a quick hello, Jane and Gerry take me on a tour, she carrying a huge butterfly net, the pole easily three feet long.

We stop at a trap of rotting fruit under netting. Gerry pokes around the netting looking for catches.

"It is fermenting fruit," Jane corrects me when I call it "rotting."

"If fermenting and rotting are something different," adds Gerry. The two of them talk in alternating phrases, finishing sentences and completing thoughts. They've been married since 1968, just after Gerry was drafted in the Army and was sent to the Thai-Lao border as an interpreter. Jane did not stay home in Pennsylvania, but joined him in the jungle. When the last of their three children went off to college, they picked Nicaragua to retire to because it reminded them of Southeast Asia.

"They come and go," says Gerry about the butterflies he's trying to lure to the traps with the fruit. "We usually have the same locals, the habitual drunks. But every once in a while we get different ones that come through, and then it's a thrill."

The strategy behind the trap is for the butterflies to eat the fermented bananas and get drunk.

"They come into the trap and they usually fly up into the netting, and we'll catch them and put them in the butterfly farm," says Jane.

"If they're something different we'll put them in the farm," Gerry adds. "If they're just the normal, regular ones that are around here all the time, we just let them go. We catch them over and over again. It's like throwing them out of the bar drunk and they come back the next day. They're getting drunk and we get entertainment." He smiles.

"It's a good lesson for the tourists," says Gerry. The drunken butterflies are easily accessible for visitors to pick up, hold, and inspect. "They see that they're not so delicate that you can't grab hold of them. You don't crush them, you just grab them-gently-and then you let them go." And he's demonstrating while we talk.

Next Gerry tells me the males of some species mate before the females break out of the chrysalis. An introduction to drunken butterflies and stories of butterfly rape and pedophilia, all after just a few minutes on the reserva.

* * *

When I returned to the States after my Nicaraguan interlude I followed up on Gerry's observations and checked in with one of the world's leading entomologists, Dr. Thomas Emmel, zoology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He provided some graphic details about the rapes, and explained how this behavior can be beneficial to the species.

"Most butterfly males have to be out as adults, out of the pupae, for about twenty-four hours or more before their sperm cells are mature," Emmel tells me, but there's no such waiting time for the females. "She's ready to be mated as soon as she emerges because she has eggs that are maturing and are ready to be fertilized by the sperm." The males of most butterfly species patrol for virgin females. They court them and try to mate with them shortly after they emerge from the chrysalis and begin to fly about. But not all the males court and wait for an invitation to start a family. "In some of the Heliconius butterflies they've advanced this calendar to the point where the males sit on pupae that may be one or two days away from hatching that are going to produce females," explains Emmel, and he describes the one-sided act the males perpetrate next. "They'll sit on that pupa as it darkens and the butterfly inside starts to wiggle and split the skin. Then they get excited enough that they will actually puncture the pupal skin with their external claspers at the end of the male abdomen and mate with the butterfly, with the female butterfly, inside-before she emerges. Because she doesn't have any choice in the matter, it's been termed 'pupal rape.'"

Not that the female doesn't play a definitive-if inactive-role in this earlier-than-most-butterflies mating game.

"The female pupa emits a pheromone, an external hormone, an odiferous hormone, that attracts the males. Literally two, three, five males may be flying around this pupa and landing on it. The strongest and biggest one, or at least the one that's most aggressive, pushes the others off and gets to mate with the female."

Sounds like a bar in Gainesville, I suggest. The scientist doesn't argue the point.

"One of the best males, probably the best male, gets to mate," says the professor, and the pupal rape, as offensive as it is if we anthropomorphize it, is productive for the species.

"When the female hatches," he's referring to a raped female, "it can then take to wing and start laying eggs right away-within the first hour, not having to wait for a male to find it. That's an advantage because female butterflies, like males, can get attacked by a bird at any point in their life and the earlier they start laying eggs, the better. They're getting some of that next generation out and safely in the egg stage before being attacked."

If the rape victim survives predators, the potential exists for her to become a butterfly baby machine. Unlike most temperate butterflies that live only a week or two, Heliconius adult butterflies can live several months, if they manage to avoid becoming bird food. Over a lifetime of four or five months one female could produce as many as five hundred eggs, laying about twenty a day.

"But the earlier they get started, the better," says Dr. Emmel, "because one never knows when a windstorm will come or a heavy rain or a lizard will make a mistake and grab that butterfly and smash it before it realizes it isn't tasty to eat. All of those chance events could happen and the butterfly, if it can shorten the length of time between hatching and egg laying, is at a great advantage."

Like it or not ... Rape. Windstorms. Heavy rain. Lizards, birds, dragonflies. It's a dangerous world for butterflies.

"The butterfly has its heart in its hands every hour, I'm sure," Emmel agrees, "because there's something that's going to grab it or eat it. All sorts of things can happen."

Finding a specialist who studies drunken butterflies proved more problematic. Informal confirmation of the story Gerry Foulds tells about his tipsy butterflies is easy to find, but not scientific proof. Finally, at the University of California at Berkeley, a smiling Dr. Robert Dudley, professor of integrative biology, offered an academic nod to the notion. Dudley specializes in animal flight dynamics, but he figures he may well have seen his share of drunken butterflies. The drink of choice? Ethanol. "A lot of butterflies feed on fermented fruit on the forest floor," he points out, "and there are a couple of anecdotal accounts, but it's never been systematically investigated. No one has ever really worked on that systematically, and that's a shame because comparative biology of ethanol exposure is really interesting." One of the many fascinating aspects, I learn fast, about butterflies is how much about them remains unknown.

"Do you believe they are drunk?" I ask the researcher.

"They behave as if they are drunk," he answers carefully. There are a lot of other compounds in those fermenting fruits. "That's the problem with the drunken animal story." Nonetheless, there are anecdotal stories about butterflies being attracted to beer. "That's one way to make a good butterfly trap: stir up some bananas in beer, and you'll get both moths at night and butterflies during the day. They're not seeking out the ethanol per se, they're going after the whole nutritional package. I would assume they're drunk, actually, because there's enough alcohol in the fermentation product. There may be some other things going on, but I do not see how you could exclude the effects of alcohol."

Dr. Dudley smiles and agrees the idea of drunken butterflies adds to the fun of studying them.

* * *

"Pupal rape and drunkards," says Gerry Foulds. "Not the oohs and aahs tourists think of with pollinating butterflies."

We tromp toward their butterfly enclosure, a funky rig of netting on posts, what the Foulds call their flight house and what their live butterfly collection calls home.

"These are local ones," Gerry says, stopping to show me what he calls "Crackers, the only ones that make noise." Jane and Gerry are refreshingly new at this butterfly business, amateurs and self-taught. Gerry points at the Crackers and says, "They're Hamadryas, which means something like sending up to the virgins. It's Arabic." We listen to the cracking sound. "They'll attack you," Gerry says. "They'll buzz people. They're territorial. They're mean." Gerry says no one knows the purpose of the sound.