What started as an anonymous tip has ended in a 19-month operation, which uncovered an “elaborate scheme” involving 3,600 wild flying squirrels captured in Florida and shipped to Asian buyers as part of the illegal exotic pet trade.
Officials have now made seven arrests in the international trafficking ring with charges including racketeering, money laundering and unlawful possession of wildlife.
“Wildlife conservation laws protect Florida’s precious natural resources from abuse,” Maj. Grant Burton, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s investigation’s section leader, said in a statement last week.
“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,” he added.
The tip first came in January, 2019 about individuals illegally trapping flying squirrels in a rural area of Marion County.
Over the next 19 months, the FWC said its investigators “pieced together an elaborate scheme” in which poachers caught flying squirrels in multiple counties throughout central Florida.
As many as 10,000 squirrel traps were set and as many as 3,600 flying squirrels were captured in under three years.
Over that time, the wildlife dealer received as much as $213,800 in gross illegal proceeds, but the FWC estimates the animal trade was worth $1-million internationally.
Investigators outlined a detailed plot.
Officials said the flying squirrels were sold to a wildlife dealer in Bushnell, Florida and then were laundered through the licensed business of the dealer, who claimed they were captive bred.
Buyers from South Korea would arrive in the United States and purchase the flying squirrels from that wildlife dealer.
Then, the animals were driven in rental cars to Chicago, where they were exported to Asia “by an unwitting international wildlife exporter.”
Couriers were also involved, according to law enforcement, travelling between Atlantic and Orlando and Chicago.
“Each of the new participants would not know the identity of the other suspects,” the FWC explained.
“As FWC Investigators monitored the operation, they learned the Florida suspects were dealing in multiple species of poached animals. Protected freshwater turtles and alligators were illegally taken and laundered through other seemingly legitimate licensed businesses. Documents were falsified concealing the true source of the wildlife,” officials added.
Wildlife shipments were intercepted as a result of the investigation.
3,600 smuggled flying squirrels = 7 arrests Thousands of wild southern flying squirrels have been stolen from the…Posted by MyFWC Florida Fish and Wildlife on Monday, October 19, 2020
Seven people have been arrested and 25 charges have been laid so far. More charges and arrests are expected.
Southern flying squirrels live in areas with mature hardwood trees and are active at night.
They are known for the special membrane between their front and back legs, which allows them to glide from tree to tree.
They are also very cute, which makes them attractive to the illegal pet trade.