US goes nuts over flying squirrel thieves

MIAMI (AFP) – It was a high-flying scheme that landed with a thud: seven alleged flying squirrel traffickers were arrested in the United States (US) state of Florida after capturing thousands of animals worth more than USD1 million.

Following a 19-month investigation, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) announced on Monday it had so far apprehended seven individuals but that additional arrests were forthcoming.

Following a January 2019 complaint, the commission found that up to 3,600 flying squirrels had been caught in 10,000 traps throughout central Florida, the FWC said.

Under the scheme, the flying squirrels, which are a protected wild animal in Florida but are sold internationally as pets, were poached, trafficked and laundered before being purchased by South Korean buyers.

The investigation revealed that the Florida-based dealer who purchased the squirrels from poachers and claimed they were born in captivity, earned as much as USD213,800 for the animals.

According to the FWC, the flying squirrels, which were collected over the course of less than three years, have an international value of more than USD1 million.

Charges for the seven individuals include racketeering, money laundering and scheming to defraud, among other crimes.

“These poachers could have severely damaged Florida’s wildlife populations,” said FWC Investigation’s section leader Major Grant Burton.

“The concerned citizen who initially reported this activity started an investigation that uncovered a major smuggling operation.”