Seven individuals have been charged over a Florida-based worldwide flying squirrel trafficking scheme through which hundreds of the creatures had been exported to Asia, state conservation officers mentioned on Monday.
As many as 3,600 flying squirrels — a protected species within the state — had been trapped in lower than three years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Fee mentioned in an announcement. Poachers deployed 10,000 squirrel traps all through the world round Marion County, in Florida, about 80 miles north of Orlando, it mentioned.
Poachers bought the animals to a wildlife supplier, Rodney Knox, in close by Bushnell, Florida, who then “laundered” them via his licensed enterprise, claiming that they had been bred in captivity, the fee mentioned.
Consumers from South Korea traveled to Florida, bought the squirrels and drove them in rental vehicles to Chicago, the fee mentioned. An “unwitting wildlife exporter” then despatched them to Asia, it mentioned, and because the scheme grew, couriers from Georgia used Atlanta as a pit cease for the exporting.
The squirrels had been estimated to be value greater than $1m (£772,515), and Mr Knox obtained $213,800 (£165,148) from the trafficking, the fee mentioned. Six of the seven individuals have been arrested, whereas one is a fugitive, it mentioned, including that 4 of these arrested had been from Florida and two from Georgia.
Mr Knox was charged with cash laundering, grand theft and dealing in stolen property, amongst different expenses. The others face comparable expenses.
Legal professionals for Mr Knox and the others charged weren’t instantly in a position to be reached on Monday.
The fee was tipped off by a involved citizen in January 2019 concerning the trapping. Throughout a 19-month inquiry, the fee mentioned, investigators discovered that the suspects from Florida had additionally been trapping and trafficking protected freshwater turtles and alligators via comparable means.
The investigation included conservation officers from Illinois, California and Georgia, in addition to the US Division of Homeland Safety.
Flying squirrels are the smallest of the three tree squirrel species native to Florida, mentioned Steve Johnson, an affiliate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation on the College of Florida in Gainesville.
They feed on regular squirrel snacks like acorns, he mentioned, and roost in hijacked chook nests.
The elimination of the trafficked squirrels from their ecosystems may have an effect on their predators, like owls and “rat snakes which can be actually good climbers,” Mr Johnson mentioned, although as a result of the squirrels have a excessive reproductive charge, the inhabitants will almost definitely be capable of bounce again pretty rapidly from the poaching.
Consumers on the receiving finish of the trafficking ring in all probability bought the flying squirrels as pets. In South Korea and different elements of East Asia, cute, unique animals like flying squirrels are standard and are featured in cafes the place patrons can sip espresso and play with the creatures.
Mr Johnson, nonetheless, mentioned that the patrons may need gotten greater than they bargained for. The flying squirrels are nocturnal and are in all probability a nuisance to have round at evening.
“I don’t see the purpose at having a gnawing, nocturnal rodent as a pet,” he mentioned.