FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A group of poachers set 10,000 traps and captured about 3,600 wild flying squirrels in Florida before putting them on an exotic pet pipeline that sent the animals to Asia.
That’s according to Florida wildlife officials who announced Monday that seven people have been arrested after a 19-month investigation.
The total retail value of the squirrels on the international pet market is believed to be over $1 million, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said.
The investigation was launched in January 2019 after a tipster made a complaint to the commission about a group of people trapping flying squirrels in rural Marion County, Florida.
In Florida, flying squirrels are a protected wild animal.
“Over the next 19 months, FWC Investigators pieced together an elaborate scheme in which flying squirrels were illegally captured by poachers in multiple counties throughout central Florida,” the commission’s announcement stated.
“The flying squirrels were then sold to a wildlife dealer in Bushnell and were laundered through the licensed business of this dealer, who claimed they were captive bred.”
Over a period of less than three years, the wildlife dealer “received as much as $213,800 in gross illegal proceeds,” the commission said.
According to investigators, buyers from South Korea would travel to the U.S. and buy the flying squirrels from the dealer in Bushnell. The squirrels were then driven in rental cars to Chicago where an “unwitting” international wildlife exporter would ship the animals to Asia.
As the operation grew, other couriers would move the squirrels from Florida to Atlanta and then Chicago.
Investigators also learned that the poachers were dealing other animals too, including turtles and alligators.
“Wildlife conservation laws protect Florida’s precious natural resources from abuse,” said Major Grant Burton of the wildlife commission. “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.”
Other agencies involved included the Illinois Conservation Police, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Homeland Security Investigations.
Facing a range of charges is Rodney Crendell Knox, 66, of Bushnell, Florida; Kenneth Lee Roebuck, 59, of Lake Panasoffkee, Florida; Donald Lee Harrod Jr., 49, of Bushnell; Vester Ray Taylor Jr., 40, of Webster, Florida; Jong Yun Baek, 56, of Marietta, Georgia; Ervin Woodyard Jr., 40, of Greenville, Georgia; and an unnamed fugitive.
©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)