At least seven people are facing numerous criminal charges after they were caught trafficking flying squirrels. According to investigators, their operation was worth an estimated $1 million.
In a statement on Monday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) said that the suspects have been charged with racketeering, money laundering, scheming to defraud, and other organized criminal laws involving “an elaborate organized enterprise to smuggle Florida’s wildlife to interstate and international buyers.”
The agency says that in January of 2019, they received a complaint from a concerned citizen about flying squirrels being illegally trapped in a rural part of Marion County. Flying squirrels are considered a protected wild animal in Florida, but they are illegally sold internationally because their rarity fetches such high prices.
After receiving the initial complaints, the FWC began a 19-month investigation where they tracked the hunters and monitored their international operation. The investigators found that once the poachers captured the squirrels, they sold the animals to a wildlife dealer in Bushnell and were laundered through the licensed business of the dealer, who claimed they were captive-bred, which would have made them legal to sell.
The poachers set out an estimated 10,000 squirrel traps throughout central Florida and investigators tracked as many as 3,600 flying squirrels being captured by the group in less than three years.
It is not clear how the agency estimated the operation to be worth $1 million, because the dealer involved in the scheme only received an estimated $213,800 in gross sales in the three years that he was being monitored.
The wildlife dealer was selling the animals to buyers from South Korea who traveled to the United States specifically for the squirrels. The buyers would then take the animals to Chicago, where they were sent to Asia by a wildlife exporter who was unaware of the plot. The investigation into the flying squirrels revealed that the same group was trafficking a variety of other poached animals, including protected freshwater turtles and alligators. There were also dealers and traffickers in Florida and Georgia dealing with the group. However, the operation was meticulous and careful, and many of the people involved with the scheme did not even know each other.
Maj. Grant Burton, FWC Investigation’s section leader, said that the poachers were a danger to the state’s wildlife.
“Wildlife conservation laws protect Florida’s precious natural resources from abuse. The concerned citizen who initially reported this activity started an investigation that uncovered a major smuggling operation. These poachers could have severely damaged Florida’s wildlife populations,” said Maj. Burton.
The life expectancy of flying squirrels in the wild is about six years, but flying squirrels can live up to fifteen years in zoos. The mortality rate in young flying squirrels is high because of predators and diseases. Predators of flying squirrels include tree snakes, raccoons, owls, martens, fishers, coyotes, bobcats, and feral cats. In the Pacific Northwest of North America, the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) is a common predator of flying squirrels. Obviously, poachers also represent a serious threat to the species.
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