TED Case Studies

Butterfly Poaching


TED Home Page About TED Research Projects Sort
 Cases
TED
 Cases Issue Papers Site Index



Case Number: 461
Case Mnemonic: POACHBUT
Case Name: Butterfly Poaching

I. Identification

1. The Issue

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there is a growing trade in protected butterflies collected by poachers in U.S. National Parks. Two high-profile cases, one involving three men in San Francisco in 1995 and another with an Italian collector in July 1997, have brought attention to the issue of butterfly poaching and threats to rare and endangered butterfly species in the United States. However, there is considerable controversy surrounding the laws used to prosecute butterfly poachers, especially the Lacey Act, which critics contend is overly broad and ambiguous. Nevertheless, concern over potential species loss compelled park officials and law enforcement personnel to attempt to stem the most flagrant abuses. Legitimate collecting and trading of butterflies appears to pose no threat to species, but when criminals target species that live in small numbers in sparse and fragmented habitats, extinction becomes a possibility.

2. Description

It is rare that events in the relatively arcane world of butterfly collecting merit national media attention. However, trade in rare species of butterflies is becoming a lucrative business. Egregious violations of state and federal regulations by poachers enraged environmentalists and led to well publicized prosecutions by the U.S. Attorney's office for trade and trafficking in endangered and protected butterfly species.


While habitat loss remains the most significant threat to butterflies in the United States, there is growing evidence that some of the most endangered species are being relentlessly pursued by poachers. Often posing as amateur enthusiasts, poachers prowl through national parks and nature preserves, capturing live butterflies or collecting butterfly eggs, which can then be nurtured in a controlled environment to maximize the specimen's value. It is critical to poachers that the butterflies are captured unharmed, which explains their preference for raising the butterflies themselves from captured eggs. Since butterflies are captured and traded because of their unique beauty and color patters, any damage or irregularities (particularly in the wings) can reduce a specimen's trading price dramatically. In addition, it often necessary to uproot native vegetation on which the butterflies feed, exacerbating the environmental degradation caused by the poachers.

Nearly 20 species of butterflies in the United States are protected by the Endangered Species Act (four other species are covered by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITIES), but none are native to North America). With so many endangered and threatened species, the U.S. has become a target for wildlife entrepreneurs. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials estimate that some rare butterflies taken from U.S. parks, if preserved in good condition, sell for up to $500 to avid collectors.1

Not only are the potential profits high, but poachers have little to fear from law enforcement officials. Claiming ignorance of the law usually proves sufficient to avoid a fine when caught by park officials. The popular view that butterflies, or even insects in general, do not count as "wildlife," and thus are not protected in national parks, helps the poachers avoid prosecution.2 While many people rally to protect owls, seals, or dolphins, insects rarely attract the attention of environmentalists, let alone the public. In large measure, the neglect of insect species can be explained by their seeming infinite numbers. It is nearly inconceivable that a few collectors could threaten most species, but several butterfly species are vulnerable because they live in small patches of fragmented habitat.

Two large-scale poaching operations did finally attract the attention of Fish and Wildlife Service officials and were prosecuted. First, three men, Richard Skalski, Thomas Kral, and Marc Grinnell were convicted in 1995 of illegally capturing thousands of butterflies from U.S. national parks and wildlife refuges. Then, in July, 1997, Adriano Teobaldelli was arrested on similar charges in California's Sequoia National Park; Teobaldelli, an Italian, evidently traveled to the United States expressly to poach rare butterflies.

The investigation of Skalski, Kral, and Grinnell began in 1991 after the Fish and Wildlife Service received a tip that Skalski had collected numerous specimens of two endangered species, Papilio indra panamintensis and Papilio indra kaibabensis, from Death Valley National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park. Skalski, an exterminator for Stanford University, had been allowed to use some of the university's science facilities for raising butterflies, and several members of the faculty were aware of his keen interest in rare species. Skalski's frequent boasting about his collection prompted a university official to contact the Fish and Wildlife Service. After posing as collectors and purchasing an endangered specimen from Skalski, law enforcement officials were able to obtain a search warrant for Skalski's residence.


Describing the interior of Skalski's home as something from Silence of the Lambs, agents found hundreds of chrysalises hanging over Skalski's bed, where he could best observe the precise moment to transfer them to a dark room before their metamorphosis.3 Inside the refrigerator were another hundred butterflies, kept cool to preserve their delicate wings intact. All in all, Skalski possessed one of the finest collections in the world. To give just one example, while the National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, and the California Academy of Sciences together do not possess a single specimen of the rare Panamint swallowtail, Skalski had nine.4

Letters seized in Skalski's home implicated Kral and Grinnell. In the letters, the three men were openly boastful of their poaching activities, relating stories about deceiving park officials on the many occasions when they were questioned; some were even signed "Yours in poaching."5 The letters also documented trips around the country to parks with express intent to poach certain endangered species. Kral had even poached a number of butterflies from a rare species that he discovered in 1992, Neonympha mitchellii francisci or the St. Francis satyr.6

From the evidence seized in the search, the Justice Department decided to pursue a felony prosecution against Skalski, Kral, and Grinnell. The three men were charged with commercial trade in wildlife protected by the Endangered Species Act and with conspiracy to poach butterflies from national parks, national wildlife refuges, and national forests. The three men eventually plead guilty to lesser charges and received fines and community service. As a result of the investigation 2,200 specimens with an estimated value of approximately $300,000, were recovered and included 14 of the butterfly species protected under the Endangered Species Act.7

The case of Adriano Teobaldelli, while less egregious than Skalski, Kral, and Grinnell's operation, shows an international dimension to the problem of butterfly poaching. Teobaldelli was apprehended in Sequoia National Park with 51 rare butterflies. A later search of his motel room uncovered over 200 more, which Teobaldelli admitted poaching from other national parks in the United States. Teobaldelli, an Italian, had traveled to the U.S. solely to capture rare species. Prosecutors chose not to pursue the same type of time-consuming case that they had against Skalski and his compatriots, but Teobaldelli was fined $500 for his activities.

These two cases highlight the growing threat to rare butterfly species. However, in the wake of the Skalski case, a considerable controversy erupted over the laws that protect butterflies from poachers. The most controversial of all is the Lacey Act, which bans interstate and international transport of endangered or protected species that have been illegally captured. It also makes it a crime to import into the United States species that were captured illegally in another country.

Critics contend the law is far too broad, leading to arbitrary enforcement. As one critic sarcastically observed, "[Enforcing the] Lacey Act would require the jailing of everyone who carried the carcass of a splattered grasshopper or fly out of a park on his windshield or radiator!"8 The concern is that enforcement of the Lacey Act will have a chilling effect on legitimate butterfly collecting. Many museums, collectors, and researchers are at risk of prosecution if some of their specimens were illegally collected.


The importance of butterflies in many ecosystems, however, would seem to support measures designed to restrict their capture and trade. Butterflies make their primary contribution to the environment through pollination. Many species, like the Monarch butterfly, are closely associated with a companion plant species, and their symbiotic relationship determines the welfare of both species. Yet, most species of butterflies are so numerous that collecting and trading, even on a large scale, pose no serious risks. While there is no accurate data on the scope of global trade in butterflies, one can predict with confidence that it does not threaten the vast majority of species. Only those types of butterflies whose habitat is in decline (through development, pollution, etc.) are in any danger of extinction. Butterflies whose habitat is threatened in this manner may well become extinct even without unauthorized collecting and trading, but poaching will certainly accelerate their demise.

The resources of the Fish and Wildlife Service to pursue butterfly poachers are so limited that only the most flagrant violators, like Skalski, Kral, and Grinnell, will be charged. In addition, legitimate collectors can often apply for permits to capture butterflies on public property, not only for personal collections but for trade. Many state regulations also provide exceptions in protection laws, even for some endangered species, for genuine research.9

The significance of the butterfly poaching case within the broad issue of trade and the environment stems from its application of traditional wildlife protection laws to insects. Species loss among insects is usually caused by habitat loss as a result of development or deforestation. However, as in the case of rare butterflies, insect species can be threatened in other ways, such as poaching. Prosecutions in the two poaching cases described above reflect the efforts of conservationists to extend wildlife protection laws to all endangered species-even bugs.

3. Related Cases

BUTTER: Monarch Butterfly
BEETLE: Beetles and Trade
MIGRATE: NAFTA and Bird Migration
FROGS: Frog Trade

4. Draft Author: Alex Roney (December 1997)

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status:DIS (Disagree) and INPROG (In progress)

Despite convictions under the Lacey Act in two cases, there remains considerable disagreement over the enforcement mechanisms designed to prevent butterfly poaching, which critics contend are overly broad and ambiguous.

6. Forum and Scope:USA and UNILATERAL

7. Decision Breadth: 1 (USA)

8. Legal Standing: LAW

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: North America

b. Geographic Site: North America

c. Geographic Impact: United States

10. Sub-National Factors:NO

11. Type of Habitat: Temperate

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure: EXBAN (Export Ban)

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:DIR (Direct Impact)

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: YES (butterfly)
The trade measures involved in this case include the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits trading or trafficking in protected species, and the Lacey Act, which makes it a federal offense to transport wildlife across state lines which is protected under state or local law. Both of these acts relate directly to butterfly poaching from national parks.

b. Indirectly Related to Product: NO

c. Not Related to Product: NO

d. Related to Process: NO

15. Trade Product Identification: SPLA (Species Loss Air)

16. Economic Data

While no accurate data exists on the economic impact of butterfly poaching, certain species are believed to fetch over $500 each from collectors. The 1995 San Francisco case involved over 2,200 illegally captured butterflies, and law enforcement officials estimated their value at over $300,000. The scale of illegal trading, however, is unknown.

17. Impact of Trade Restriction: LOW

18. Industry Sector: CRAFT

19. Exporters and Importers: USA and MANY

There is no data indicating which countries may be involved in importing illegally captured butterflies. Individual collectors who trade rare species reside in a wide variety of countries. Evidence from the 1995 San Francisco case suggested that the poachers had contacts in Spain, France, Canada, Italy, Australia, Japan, Brazil and others.

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type: SPLA (Species Loss Air)

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

Name: MANY including Papilio indra panamintensis, Papilio indra kaibabensis, Neonympha mitchelli francisci
There are a number of species involved in this case-the three listed are representative of the species most vulnerable to poaching. All three live in small patches of fragmented habitat where natural predation and limited resources keep their numbers low. Further decline in the habitat combined with poaching places the species in acute risk of extinction.

Type: Insect

Diversity: N/A

IUNC Status: ENDANG (Endangered)

22. Resource Impact and Effect: MEDIUM and PRODUCT

23. Urgency and Lifetime: LOW and 1 year

24. Substitutes: CONSV (greater conservation efforts)

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture: NO

26. Trans-Boundary Issues: YES (Mexico)

Many of the endangered species live in the southern United States and seasonally migrate to Mexico. Kral and his compatriots, for example, collected several of their endangered butterflies from Mexico. In the rare instances when butterfly poaching cases have arisen, the United States and Mexican authorities have cooperated closely.

27. Rights: NO

28. Relevant Literature

Alexander, Caroline. "Crimes of Passion: A Glimpse into the Covert World of Rare Butterfly Collecting." Internet source:
http://outside.starwave.com/magazine/0196/9601is.html (14 October 1997, 2:14pm).

"Butterfly Poacher Nabbed." The National Law Journal 13 November 1995, A8.

Claiborne, William. "Authorities Net Butterfly Poacher at National Park." Washington Post 2 August 1997: A4.

"Felon Thomas W. Kral." U.S. Department of Justice Press Release. Internet source: http://wwwtricity.wsu.edu/~ebechtel/jul95.html (1 October 1997, 12:15pm).

Herrick, Thaddeus. "Butterflies Aren't Free: Respected Collector Caught Between Science, Law." The Houston Chronicle 15 October 1995, A1.

---. "Complex Rules Confusing to Researchers." The Houston Chronicle 15 October 1995, A28.

Webster, Donovan. "The Animal Smugglers." The New York Times 16 February 1997, Section 6, 27.

Williams, Ted. "The Great Butterfly Bust." Audubon 98 (March 1996): 30.

World Wildlife Fund. "Nine Most Endangered Species." Internet source: http://www.wwf.org/species/most_endangered.html#anchor9 (12 October 1997, 11:20am).

1 William Claiborne, "Authorities Net Butterfly Poacher at National Park," Washington Post 2 August 1997, A4.
2 Ted Williams, "The Great Butterfly Bust," Audubon 98 (March 1996): 30.
3 Ibid.
4 Caroline Alexander, "Crimes of Passion: A Glimpse into the Covert World of Rare Butterfly Collecting," Internet source: http://outside.starwave.com/magazine/0196/9601is.html (14 October 1997, 2:14pm).
5 Williams, "The Great Butterfly Bust," 30.
6 World Wildlife Fund, "Nine Most Endangered Species."
7 Williams, "The Great Butterfly Bust," 30.
8 Alexander, "Crimes of Passion."
9 Williams, "The Great Butterfly Bust," 30.
Return to Description

Go to All Cases

Go to TED Categories