A once-soaring (and illegal) flying squirrel traffic ring has been busted in Florida, where poachers allegedly made a small fortune by trapping and selling the rodents as pets on the international market.
Seven people have been charged in connection with the scheme, which is thought to have been worth at least US$1 million, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) announced on Monday. They face a combined 25 felony charges in connection with the incident, with more arrests pending.
Charges include racketeering, money laundering, scheming to defraud and other organized crime charges related to wildlife smuggling.
The poachers trapped as many as 3,600 flying squirrels in the wild and sold them to foreign buyers from Asia over the course of three years, according to the FWC.
“These poachers could have severely damaged Florida’s wildlife populations,” said Maj. Grant Burton, who leads the FWC’s investigation section.
Flying squirrels are a protected wild species in Florida, but the suspects got around that by “laundering” their captured wild animals through a licensed breeder, the FWC says.
The breeder, Rodney Knox, made $213,800 from the trafficking operation and is among the seven facing charges, investigators say. He was charged with money laundering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, racketeering, scheme to defraud, grand theft and dealing in stolen property.
South Korean buyers would visit the breeder in Bushnell, Fla., to buy a squirrel, the FWC says. The poachers would then deliver the animals to Chicago via rental car, and an unwitting wildlife exporter would be duped into sending the squirrels to their international destinations.
“Documents were falsified concealing the true source of the wildlife,” the FWC said in a statement.
The operation eventually expanded to include couriers running through Atlanta for a pit stop, the FWC says. The suspects were also caught illegally trafficking in protected freshwater turtles and alligators, investigators say.
The arrests come after a sweeping multi-state investigation, which started after a concerned citizen tipped off the FWC in January 2019.
Four of the accused are from Florida and two are from Georgia. A seventh unnamed suspect remained a fugitive as of Monday morning.