Inside the Murky World of Butterfly Catchers

For those who capture and trade the delicate insect, the rules are intricate and the prize is mesmerizing.Monday, 8 April 2019

By Matthew Teague
Photographs By Evgenia Arbugaeva
This story appears in the August 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

It can be a treacherous thing, hunting this particular butterfly.

The peacock swallowtail, Papilio blumei, lives only here, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, and only at a certain altitude. Its mountain home is a steep rock covered with a thin layer of wet earth, where every handhold and step sends away a small mudslide. And somewhere along the way, between the valley and the peak, an economy becomes clear: This is why some butterflies are valuable. This is why there’s a black market for the rare ones.

The hunter, a man named Jasmin Zainuddin, stops a moment. He carries a stick that he uses to prod the mud, testing it. “Only a little bit higher,” he says.

Jasmin has lived his entire life on this island, and over decades he has built a network of informers, transporters, and catchers to move butterflies from local mountaintops to collectors around the world. Today his morning started in Makassar, a city at the island’s southwestern tip. A van carried him and several helpers on a winding road up from the lowland heat, through jungle, and finally into a mountain village where the road became too steep and slippery. There Jasmin moved his supplies and crew onto the backs of a half dozen motorbikes, mostly driven by small boys. The road crumbled and narrowed into a path, which became a series of swinging bridges that could bear one motorbike at a time, and which ended altogether at the next village. From there everyone disembarked, took up sacks of rice and jugs of water, and started to climb.

It’s an arduous journey. But now, leaning on his mud-testing staff, Jasmin breathes hard through an open smile. “Close now,” he says.

Eventually the mountainside begins to shape itself into terraced rice paddies, and Jasmin’s destination appears above. It’s a hut he built himself, raised high on stilts. One by one, he and his helpers climb a log to enter it.

As the sun sets, Jasmin stretches out on the floor of the hut. He’s middle-aged now, and hauling supplies gets harder every trip. Tomorrow, he says, the hunt will begin in earnest. For now, two women, one middle-aged and one younger, prepare dinner.

Every word Jasmin speaks, every item he touches, every memory he recollects centers on butterflies. He has studied, followed, and caught them since an encounter with a foreigner when he was a small boy. Now he pays an army of small boys himself, all equipped with gossamer nets. Together they make up the lowest step in a butterfly market that ends in private parlors and corporate boardrooms in faraway lands, where some collectors pay thousands of dollars for specimens they display under glass.

In the near darkness the women laugh at Jasmin’s prone figure as they cook. The older is Mujiauna, his wife of almost 30 years. They smile at each other a lot.

Jasmin sits up. “You must have a wife?” he says.

It’s the first time he has veered from the subject of butterflies, and the question is so unexpected I struggle with it.

“No,” I say. “Or not anymore.”

“Something happened to her?”

“Yes.”

He sits in silence a moment and lies down again.

The hut sits on the western face of the mountain, so that the next day arrives as a slab of light sliding between the mountainside and low rain clouds.

Jasmin rarely climbs all the way to the top anymore, he says, but today he’ll accompany his favorite catcher, a young man named Aris, part of the way. They each carry a net.

A stream runs past the paddies, and they follow it to a small river, and then follow that farther up the mountain. Along the way Jasmin talks freely—butterflies are deaf to human voices—but his eyes read the forest with a specific literacy. In a scene of ferns and vines and dripping water he can pick out any tiny winged thing resting on the underside of a leaf. “No,” he says each time. “Too common.”

Jasmin’s father caught butterflies before him, starting in the early 1970s. They lived in a village called Bantimurung, which Alfred Russel Wallace, the great British naturalist, had visited a century earlier. He described Bantimurung as “a beautiful sight, being dotted with groups of gay butterflies—orange, yellow, white, blue, and green—which on being disturbed rose into the air by hundreds, forming clouds of variegated colours.”

The father’s technique was rudimentary. He caught whatever creatures floated near the family home and offered them to foreigners who visited the island. Soon the foreigners who came seemed to know more about the butterflies than local people did. For example, when Jasmin was young, a French collector showed him a glass bell in which he trapped butterflies with a bit of ether. “A killing jar,” Jasmin says.

A government project forced his family to move soon after that, he says, but that peculiar jar stayed in his imagination: the motion of the butterflies, and how easily they slipped into stillness.

The next turn in his life came a few years later, in the 1980s. A small group of Japanese visitors arrived on Sulawesi with questions about butterflies. One of them, a man Jasmin called Mr. Nishiyama, spoke some Indonesian, and noticed the boy. He thought Jasmin was smart, paid attention, and seemed to have a genuine affinity for the butterflies.

Over the next two decades Mr. Nishiyama returned to the island many times, always hiring Jasmin to help him on expeditions into the mountains. As they hiked, the Japanese man revealed an entire world of butterflies: their patterns of flying, mating, resting; what drew them in, what repelled them. Only years later did Jasmin learn his teacher was Yasusuke Nishiyama, one of Asia’s great lepidopterists. He wrote books about the butterflies they found together.

Now Jasmin points beyond a high waterfall. “There,” he says. That’s where the blumei live.

Aris continues climbing. He springs among wet roots and rocks like a leopard. Jasmin remains below. As he recedes into the forest, he doesn’t immediately turn away; he lets his eyes linger on the mist above the waterfall. Absently he lets his butterfly net sway in gentle arcs, with the net drifting like a cobweb on the air.

The waterfall, it turns out, is the first of a series. Aris climbs them and eventually breaks past the cloud cover, emerging into clear sky framed by high jungle canopy. He stops and reaches into a triangular wooden box that swings at his hip. From it he withdraws a triangular piece of wax paper, and from that he tenderly removes a specimen of the butterfly he hopes to find. Papilio blumei.

Its wings look like black velvet, each with a stripe of peacock blue-green. It’s a startling object, like a jewel, and it’s immediately clear why collectors on distant continents would desire it.

Aris cuts a tiny sliver of wood from a tree, no bigger than a matchstick, and sharpens it to a point. He uses it to pin his butterfly specimen to a large leaf about waist high, then retreats to watch from a rock outcropping.

“Female,” he says, nodding. “The male will come, looking for a mate.”

He settles into a hollow spot in the rock to wait.

He has a mate of his own, he says, and a new baby. They live at Jasmin’s hut year-round, surviving on rice and income from the butterflies. He and the other catchers bring them to Jasmin, who pays a few cents for each butterfly. Jasmin sells them either at the market in Bantimurung or to a man in Jakarta—an Indonesian butterfly boss—who then sells them to dealers around the world. By the time a blumei’s final seller mounts the butterfly in a display case, it might go for close to a hundred dollars. Other species—internationally protected species—sell for astronomical prices.

The idea of trading in butterflies sounds quaint, almost Victorian, but the internet has enabled the modern market. In 2017 British authorities, for the first time, convicted a man for capturing and killing a large blue, one of the United Kingdom’s rarest butterflies. Investigators linked Phillip Cullen to an online auction account.

In 2007 a multiyear investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Los Angeles led to the conviction of Hisayoshi Kojima, a Japanese man who described himself as “the world’s most wanted butterfly smuggler.” He had offered to sell an undercover agent an illegal collection of butterflies worth more than a quarter million dollars. It’s hard to pin down the exact size of the global black market for butterflies today, but estimates range up to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

“Do you see butterflies at home?” Aris says.

Sometimes, I say.

My hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, is at the center of the migration path for monarch butterflies. One of the last outings my wife and I made with our two girls was to a museum where we watched a documentary called Flight of the Butterflies, about the orange-and-black monarchs’ great annual movement from Canada to central Mexico and back again. We all fell in love with them, and as we left the museum, my daughters begged us for butterfly-themed books and toys. My wife, Nicole, bought a delicate pair of monarch earrings.

Aris likes the idea of a butterfly movie. It makes him laugh.

So I stop the story there. There’s no need to explain about the cancer that had already taken hold in Nicole during that trip and would take her away, in pieces, over the next two years. Sometimes now my girls remove the butterfly earrings from their case and admire them in the mirror. They’re inexpensive jewelry, but the girls always handle them like treasures.

“I miss my wife,” Aris says.

Me too, I say.

We sit a long time. Hours. Catching butterflies is a lonesome endeavor. Then Aris’s finger shoots toward the sky: “Look.”

High among the treetops—higher than I would have searched for a butterfly—there’s a flicker of blue, like a scrap of confetti. Slowly it descends in a drifting, indirect route toward the decoy.

As it comes closer, I realize just how different it is from the decoy. It is a glittering thing, not one peacock tone but many. Its color has a fourth dimension; moment to moment as it moves, the color changes depending on the angle of its wings in the sun.

Scientists have tried for years to replicate this quality of the blumei’s. In 2010 a team of U.K. university researchers from Cambridge and Exeter tried to describe its essence in the journal Nature Nanotechnology: “Although the physics of structural colours is well understood, it remains a challenge to create artificial replicas of natural photonic structures. Here we use a combination of layer deposition techniques, including colloidal self-assembly, sputtering and atomic layer deposition, to fabricate photonic structures that mimic the colour mixing effect found on the wings of the Indonesian butterfly Papilio blumei.”

All of that—the sputtering atomic beauty—is on display as the butterfly descends. It is, in short, alive.

As it moves toward its potential mate, Aris’s net shoots out and swallows it whole, like a diaphanous predator.

It’s painful to see. I had forgotten, for a moment, about the net.

Aris’s face is alight with joy. And of course it is—with great patience and skill he has just captured a prize that will help provide food for his wife and new baby. He reaches gently into the net and takes it in his hands. With its wings pinned back between his thumb and forefinger, he uses the other hand to pinch its body for a moment, and it dies.

He gathers up the decoy, puts it and the new specimen into their little triangular wax paper envelopes, and slips them into his box. As he walks now, he whistles.

As we descend the waterfalls, though, it’s difficult to escape the moment the blumei ceased to move. It remained beautiful afterward, but in an instant all its fourth-dimensionality had drained away. It had become a mere gemstone or a splash of paint.

More than for the butterfly, I feel sorrow for whoever will eventually hang it on a wall or tilt it on a desk. That person will never know just how exquisite it had been in life.

Over the next couple of days at the hut, catchers bring Jasmin specimens for inspection. They come from all directions, sometimes in the morning, sometimes emerging from darkness.

They bring butterflies, mostly, but a handful of moths and other insects. One evening as the sun sets, a few catchers sit talking on Jasmin’s high porch. Then suddenly one—an older man—stands up, grabs his net, and leaps to the ground below. The others cheer as he sprints uphill, waving his net toward a dark, ghostly shape in the air.

He returns, and the men take turns examining his catch: a birdwing. A rare butterfly, and a protected species.

“It’s just a small one,” Jasmin says.

Even so, it is enormous, able to cover a man’s entire hand. Its wings appear dull and mottled until Jasmin slides the forewing away from the hind wing, revealing a shock of yellow between. A ribbon of hidden beauty.

The men celebrate. The birdwing will make a good sale, they say, even better than the blumei. They don’t discuss why: The blumei is illegal to capture inside Bantimurung Bulusaraung National Park, but catching the birdwing is restricted everywhere. So it will go to the black market.

The next day Jasmin makes the journey down from the mountain to the market outside Bantimurung park. He and his helpers make their long trek in reverse: the mountainside climb, the motorbikes and swinging bridges, the van, and finally the heat of the lowlands.

You can see Bantimurung park from miles away. It’s part of one of the largest karst formations in the world, shaped when limestone and soil washed away and left great cones and towers of rock that rise and lean over the landscape. The corridors between them twist and dive, sometimes underground, and emerge where ancient waterfalls still carve them in slow motion.

The market piles up against the entrance to Bantimurung Ecotourism Park, a gateway to the national park. In contrast to the quiet loneliness of the catchers setting their traps in mountain mist, the market is explosive and many-colored, a carnival. Hawkers call out “kupukupukupukupu!”—butterflies! butterflies!—as a crowd moves among rows of stalls. Two types of visitors populate the scene. The first is tourists who wear butterfly T-shirts and sip from butterfly cups; they nibble butterfly candy under butterfly parasols. The other group is mostly men in button-up shirts—dealers who’ve come to do business. They peruse the stalls where thousands upon thousands of butterflies sit on display, some framed, some encased in shadow boxes.

Indonesia’s rules governing the capture, sale, and export of butterflies are complicated and riddled with exceptions, which allow even endangered species bred for the commercial market to be bought and sold in certain instances. But how does one tell a wild butterfly from one raised on a breeding farm?

As Jasmin moves among the stalls, I ask him: Is there a section for legal trade, and a section for the black market? He wraps his arms together, and then interlaces his hands and fingers, to indicate the two markets are intertwined.

If he notices a protected species on display, would he mind pointing it out?

He shakes his head and gives a soft smile, then walks along the stalls, touching frames and displays as he goes. “This,” he says. “This... this... this... this... this... this... this...” He indicates about half the butterflies.

When the men in button-up shirts are serious, they duck behind the stalls into back rooms to negotiate private deals. Jasmin is serious. In a room behind a storefront, another man shows him several boxes full of the wax paper triangles. These butterflies started their journey in the nets of boys on far-flung islands, then were transported in vans driven by middlemen, and finally they have been funneled here—heaps and mounds of them, waiting for an overseas buyer.

Collectors and dealers buy and sell butterfly specimens from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and beyond at the annual Tokyo Insect Fair, which has no website but attracts enthusiasts from around the globe. The international market for butterflies is, like the creatures themselves, quiet and difficult to pin down. Estimates of the trade range as high as hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Surely the government knows about this trade?

Jasmin gives the soft smile again and moves to a window, where he points into the crowd: “Look... look... look,” he says. He’s pointing out men in police uniforms, who seem unperturbed.

“Let me show you something,” he says.

We walk into the park itself, where we see a fading hotel and natural water slide and tour guides leading groups toward underground caverns. Butterflies decorate every surface, down to the pavement itself, but there are no actual butterflies to be seen in the air. “The government does not care,” Jasmin says.

He points to a building. “That is where my home was when I was small.” Bantimurung Ecotourism Park, he says, was the government project that ousted his family when he was a boy.

He walks deeper into the park, past his former home, past a glassed-in terrarium that once held butterflies but now sits empty. Around a corner and down a narrow passage, away from the crowds, he begins to walk more slowly and speak more softly.

“This was my family,” he says. He stands before what appears to be a small garden decorated with large rocks. The context is so jarring—we can hear tourists squealing at the water park—that only gradually does the meaning of the stones take shape.

They’re grave markers.

Back at Jasmin’s home, he plays on the floor with his small granddaughter. He wants his son to follow him into the butterfly business, he says, but the young man shows no interest.

As they play, I look over maps of the area. Bantimurung Bulusaraung National Park, I realize, is larger than I had thought. Much larger.

What was the name again, of the village nearest his hut?

“Laiya,” he says.

And there on the map is tiny Laiya—at the foot of the mountain. Deep inside the park.

So all the butterflies he and his catchers bring from that mountain are caught illegally.

He shrugs. “As long as there is the forest, there will be butterflies,” he says.

He feels an ownership, because his family came from that land. The government took away his birthright, in his view, so he takes it back.

But if everyone does the same, I start to say—and for the first time, Jasmin bristles.

“As long as there is a forest,” he repeats. “But they are taking the forest.”

He raises an index finger, angry now, and begins to reel off a series of scientific butterfly names. I choose one—Ixias piepersi—and look it up in one of his illustrated books. It doesn’t seem remarkable in any way, just yellowish and small. But they have existed only in a small stretch of coastline between Bantaeng and Bulukumba on the south edge of the island. Now coastal fish farms have wiped out their habitat, Jasmin says, and he fears they are going extinct.

Now Jasmin’s eyes are wet. “No one loves the kupu-kupu more,” he says. “Look at my home. Look around.”

Butterflies are woven into his tablecloth and painted into the decor. He has signed editions of Mr. Nishiyama’s books in Japanese and English that he cannot read, but which he gazes at with his granddaughter. The bricks in the walls themselves are shaped into familiar wings.

There’s no part of Jasmin’s home, like his life, that isn’t touched by butterflies.

It’s difficult to say why butterflies inspire such obsession. Why Victorian collectors went mad for them or Japanese businessmen devote whole rooms to them, or why the great novelist Vladimir Nabokov studied them in microscopic detail throughout his lifetime. “I have hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises,” he wrote in Speak, Memory, “as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts.”

I suspect the endurance of their appeal lies in their very ephemerality. Like the blumei that Aris pinched so tenderly on the Sulawesi mountaintop, they seem to exist on the edge of nonexistence, to float along just this side of a mortal veil. Such is their delicacy that they are unattainable in life, and unsatisfying in death.

In the spring, back home in Alabama, my younger daughter looked up during a car ride and said, “Do you know something Mommy always wanted us to do?”

She’s 11 now, and we’ve been on our own for four years. Four years that I’ve flinched at questions like this one. They remind me that because I have not found another mate, my girls have no mother figure; and of everything I haven’t done, or can’t do, or am too tired to try, alone.

But I can’t let her see that, so I say, “Nope, what’s that?”

“A butterfly garden.”

“That’s a good idea,” I say. And then, to myself: It really is. I can do that.

So we pick a spot in the yard and dig several holes and lower into them an assortment of plants and flowers that monarchs love. Lantana camara and Bulbine frutescens, especially.

After the last one we step back for perspective. My older daughter says, “Not bad. I hope they come.”

They will. It’s just a matter of waiting for the season to change, I tell her. And the days are already getting warmer.

Matthew Teague profiled South Sudanese elephant herds in the November 2010 issue. Evgenia Arbugaeva photographed reindeer herders in
the Russian Arctic
for the October 2017 issue.
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