Seven people were charged in a trafficking operation that trapped thousands of flying squirrels in Florida with an estimated retail value of over $1 million and sold them to buyers in Asia, state wildlife officials said.
Flying squirrels, a protected wild animal in Florida, are sold internationally in the pet trade.
Six suspects have been arrested while one remains a fugitive. The seven face a variety of felony charges that include racketeering, money laundering and dealing in stolen property.
Poachers captured as many as 3,600 of the small creatures in multiple counties in central Florida over a three-year period, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in a statement on Monday. They had set almost 10,000 flying squirrel traps.
A concerned citizen tipped off authorities to the illegal trapping in a rural area of Marion County, prompting the probe.
Investigators discovered that the animals were sold to a wildlife dealer based in Bushnell, Fla., who laundered them through his licensed business and claimed they were bred in captivity, the agency said.
Buyers from South Korean would travel to the United States and purchase the flying squirrels, the agency said. “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 operation expanded to include a courier from Georgia, who would fly to Orlando and drive to Atlanta, where a second courier would make the final journey to Chicago.
Investigators also determined that the suspects were dealing in more than one species.
“Protected freshwater turtles and alligators were illegally taken and laundered through other seemingly legitimate licensed businesses,” the commission said. “Documents were falsified concealing the true source of the wildlife.”
“Wildlife conservation laws protect Florida’s precious natural resources from abuse,” said Maj. Grant Burton, who leads investigations at the state's wildlife commission. “These poachers could have severely damaged Florida’s wildlife populations,” he said.
Lawyers for those charged could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.