Poachers trapped as many as 3,600 flying squirrels in Florida. Then they drove the animals to Chicago and shipped them to South Korea, Florida wildlife officials said Monday.
Officials charged seven alleged poachers with felonies including racketeering and money laundering. Authorities have arrested six of them, though one remains at large.
Flying squirrels trapped by the thousands
The poachers set about 10,000 traps in Central Florida, the Associated Press reported. They caught thousands of squirrels. Then they sold them to a licensed wildlife dealer. Though the dealer claimed the squirrels grew up in captivity.
Flying squirrels are protected wildlife. Two types of flying squirrels are on the federal endangered species list, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Wildlife officials estimated the international retail value of the flying squirrels at over $1 million. The licensed wildlife dealer got more than $213,000 for them.
“Buyers from South Korea would travel to the United States and purchase the flying squirrels from the wildlife dealer in Bushnell,” the state wildlife commission said. The poachers drove the animals in rental cars to Chicago. Then they exported them to Asia using an innocent international wildlife exporter.
Poaching in a remote area
The poachers trapped the squirrels in a remote area of Marion County, Florida, NBC News reported. A local citizen alerted wildlife officials to the situation.
The poachers allegedly also trafficked protected freshwater turtles and alligators. They laundered them through licensed sellers, like the squirrels. Wildlife officials said they falsified documents in order to hide the animals’ origins.
“Wildlife conservation laws protect Florida’s precious natural resources from abuse,” said the wildlife commission’s Major Grant Burton, according to NBC. “These poachers could have severely damaged Florida’s wildlife populations.”