MARION COUNTY, Fla. — Flying squirrels, freshwater turtles and alligators.
Those are the species of animals the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says were illegally trafficked across state lines and sold throughout the country and internationally.
Seven people have been charged with racketeering, money laundering, scheming to defraud and other organized criminal laws in what is being called "an elaborate organized enterprise" to smuggle Florida's wildlife out of the state. More arrests are forthcoming, FWC says.
It began in January 2019, when FWC got a complaint from someone saying people were illegally trapping flying squirrels in a rural area of Marion County. Flying squirrels are a protected wild animal in the state of Florida and are sold internationally in the pet trade, according to FWC.
For more than a year and a half, investigators were able to piece together the "elaborate scheme" and discovered flying squirrels were illegally captured by poachers throughout multiple counties in central Florida. The animals were then sold to a wildlife dealer in Bushnell and the money was laundered through the dealer's licensed business, who claimed the squirrels were bred in captivity and not wildlife, according to FWC.
FWC says as many as 3,600 flying squirrels were captured in less than three years, with as many as 10,000 traps set throughout central Florida. The wildlife dealer got as much as $213,800 from the smuggling. As for the international retail value of the protected species, FWC estimates that to be more than $1 million.
Investigators say buyers from South Korea would come to the U.S. and buy the flying squirrels from the dealer in Bushnell. The animals would then be taken in rental cars to Chicago and eventually shipped to Asia by an "unwitting" international wildlife exporter. As the operation expanded, FWC says couriers from Georgia would take over transport.
But, it wasn't just flying squirrels that were part of this smuggling scheme, FWC said. Protected freshwater turtles and alligators were also taken from their habitats and illegally sold through other seemingly legitimate businesses, authorities said.
“Wildlife conservation laws protect Florida’s precious natural resources from abuse. 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,” said Maj. Grant Burton, FWC Investigation's section leader.
If you see potential violations, you can report them to the FWC by calling the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 or texting email@example.com.
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