Flying squirrels were being trapped in Florida, driven to Chicago and shipped to South Korea, Florida wildlife officials said Monday while announcing charges against seven people they say ran an illegal wildlife trafficking operation.
Poachers set as many as 10,000 squirrel traps in central Florida and captured as many as 3,600 flying squirrels over a three-year period. They sold the squirrels to a licensed wildlife dealer who claimed they were bred in captivity and not wild, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in a press release. Flying squirrels are a protected species.
"Buyers from South Korea would travel to the United States and purchase the flying squirrels from the wildlife dealer in Bushnell. The animals were then driven in rental cars to Chicago, where the source of the animals was further concealed, and the animals were exported to Asia by an unwitting international wildlife exporter," the agency said.
The agency said the Florida dealer received more than $213,000 for the animals. The international retail value of the poached flying squirrels is estimated to be more than $1 million.
The agency began the investigation in January 2019 after receiving a complaint about illegally trapped squirrels.
As the operation expanded, a courier from Georgia began flying to Orlando to pick up the animals and drive them to Atlanta, where a second courier would then drive them to Chicago.
The seven people charged face a total of 25 felonies, including racketeering, money laundering and scheming to defraud. Six of the suspects have been arrested and a seventh remains a fugitive. The agency said more arrests are expected.
The Florida suspects also illegally shipped protected freshwater turtles and alligators from Tampa to Los Angeles, where California authorities intercepted the reptiles, the agency said.
"These poachers could have severely damaged Florida’s wildlife populations,” said Maj. Grant Burton, who leads the Florida wildlife commission's investigation section.