Yes, flying squirrels-- a protected species here in Florida. They are adorable and apparently, there is a significant flying squirrel black market complete with international buyers. The oddity of the story itself prompted national news outlets to spread the story far and wide.
In an ongoing sting operation, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officers have now arrested a total of seven suspects with 25 felony charges. Additional arrests are forthcoming pertaining to the illegal capture and selling of flying squirrels. The FWC first received word of the illegal racketeering scheme in January of 2019.
According to an FWC news release, poachers illegally captured these animals throughout multiple counties in central Florida. “They deployed as many as 10,000 squirrel traps throughout central Florida and as many as 3,600 flying squirrels were captured in less than three years. The animals 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. In three years, the wildlife dealer received as much as $213,800 in gross illegal proceeds. The FWC estimates the international retail value of the poached wildlife will exceed $1 million.”
The FWC uncovered a fairly complex logistics effort to obfuscate the illegal operations. FWC explains, “Investigators learned buyers from South Korea would travel to the United States and purchase the flying squirrels from the wildlife dealer in Bushnell. The animals were then driven in rental cars to Chicago, where the source of the animals was further concealed, and the animals were exported to Asia by an unwitting international wildlife exporter. As the operation expanded, couriers from the state of Georgia would take over the transports. One Georgia courier would fly to Orlando, rent a vehicle, and drive the animals to Atlanta. A second hired courier would then drive the animals to Chicago. Each of the new participants would not know the identity of the other suspects.”
Flying squirrels were just the tip of the iceberg. The FWC news release further says,
“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.”
“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. Burton, FWC Investigation’s section leader.
The additional suspects charged are
Rodney Crendell Knox Bushnell, Florida
Kenneth Lee Roebuck Lake Panasoffkee, Florida
Donald Lee Harrod Jr. Bushnell, Florida
Vester Ray Taylor Jr. Webster, Florida
Jong Yun Baek Marietta, Georgia
Ervin Woodyard Jr. Greenville, Georgia
The public can help by reporting any suspected violations to the FWC by calling the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or texting [email protected] Further charges and arrests as a result of this investigation may be forthcoming. The investigation is being prosecuted by the Florida Attorney General’s Office.