Flying Squirrel Poaching Ring Broken up by Florida Wildlife Investigators
In January of 2019, a concerned citizen in Marion County, Florida noticed something strange: Someone was trapping flying squirrels.
The anonymous tipster notified the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), launching a 19-month investigation that uncovered an elaborate flying-squirrel trafficking operation in which up to 3,600 of the protected animals were captured and sold as part of the international illegal wildlife trade.
"Wildlife conservation laws protect Florida's precious natural resources from abuse," the investigation's section leader Maj. Grant Burton said in an FWC press release Monday. "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."
The investigation has so far uncovered seven suspects. Together, the group has racked up 25 felony charges including racketeering, money laundering and scheming to defraud.
"With the exception of one individual, all those involved have been arrested, so we felt it was the right time to highlight this case," FWC spokeswoman Shannon Knowles told the Miami Herald.
The arrests took place between April and August of this year and include four men from Florida and two men from Georgia. In addition to targeting flying squirrels, the Florida suspects also caught and sold protected freshwater turtles and alligators, FWC said.
All told, the poachers set at least 10,000 squirrel traps throughout central Florida over a three year period.
The operation worked roughly like this:
- Poachers set traps for squirrels in several Florida counties.
- The captured squirrels were sold to a wildlife dealer in Bushnell, Florida who laundered the wild squirrels through a licensed business that claimed they were bred in captivity.
- South Korean buyers would buy the squirrels from Bushnell and have them driven to Chicago.
- In Chicago, the squirrels' true origin was further concealed, and a wildlife exporter would send them to Asia without knowing they had been obtained illegally.
- When the operation grew larger, drivers from Georgia would help transport the squirrels from Florida to Chicago in rental cars.
The Bushnell wildlife dealer earned at least $213,800 in illegal proceeds, and the international retail value of the stolen squirrels will probably surpass $1 million, FWC estimated.
Despite their name, flying squirrels do not actually fly, the Miami Herald pointed out. Instead, they glide between trees. They are one of many small, exotic mammals that have become popular pets in South Korea and other parts of East Asia, University of Florida in Gainesville wildlife ecology and conservation associate professor Steve Johnson told The New York Times. They are also sometimes featured in cafes where patrons can interact with cute animals.
However, Johnson pointed out that flying squirrels were not well-suited to domestication.
"I don't see the point at having a gnawing, nocturnal rodent as a pet," he said.
In their natural habitat, however, they are an important meal for owls and rat snakes. Johnson thought their absence could have an impact on their predators, but also noted that they reproduced quickly and that their population would likely rebound now that the poachers have been apprehended.