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At least seven people have been charged in an "elaborate" flying squirrel trafficking scheme in which poachers in Florida caught thousands of the rodents before selling them to buyers in Asia, officials said on Monday.
Poachers are accused of illegally catching more than 3,500 flying squirrels, a protected species in Florida, over a three-year period, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
They allegedly set up to 10,000 traps in trees around the rural area of Marion County, Fla., located about 80 miles northwest of Orlando, before the rodents were sold to a wildlife dealer in Bushnell — who resold them as captive-bred pets — not wildlife.
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Poachers are accused of illegally catching more than 3,500 flying squirrels, a protected species in Florida
"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," according to the FWC.
The dealer at the center of the operation was said to be Rodney Knox, 66, who netted as much as $213,800, the FWC said. He was a subject of a recent National Geographic report on the alleged scheme. The agency estimated the retail value of the captured animals at more than $1 million.
The FWC originally received a complaint from a "concerned citizen" back in January 2019 about individuals illegally trapping the rodents in the state. Over the next 19 months, investigators said they pieced together the scheme in which flying squirrels were illegally captured in multiple counties throughout Central Florida.
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As the operation grew, couriers from the state of Georgia would take over the transports, officials said. Turtles and alligators were also allegedly smuggled in a similar fashion.
“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 FWC Investigation section leader Maj. Grant Burton.
Knox was charged with money laundering, grand theft, racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, scheme to defraud, and dealing in stolen property, according to the agency. At least six others face similar charges.
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In some places, including South Korea, flying squirrels — small rodents that glide between trees — have found demand as pets.
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