"The concerned citizen who initially reported this activity started an investigation that uncovered a major smuggling operation," said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
flying squirrel
Credit: Getty

Seven suspects have been arrested so far in connection to an animal trafficking operation in Florida, authorities said.

On Monday, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission announced that 25 felony charges have been filed in a case that's believed to have harmed as many as 3,600 flying squirrels over three years.

The officials also estimated that the wildlife dealers garnered some $213,800 in gross illegal proceeds, with the combined retail value of the thousands of wild flying squirrels topping $1 million.

Charges in the case include counts of racketeering, money laundering, scheming to defraud, and other organized crimes. The FWC defined the situation as an "elaborate organized enterprise to smuggle Florida’s wildlife to interstate and international buyers."

"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," Maj. Grant Burton, FWC Investigation’s section leader, said in a press release.

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The FWC was flagged in January 2019 by a "concerned citizen" who observed people "illegally trapping flying squirrels in a rural area of Marion County." Flying squirrels are a protected wild animal in Florida, but the animals are still sold internationally in the pet trade, the officials noted.

Investigators worked the next 19 months to uncover the underground animal trafficking operation in central Florida.

According to the press release, buyers came from South Korea to purchase the flying squirrels. "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," said FWC.

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Couriers would  drive the captive animals to Atlanta, then trade-off to another driver who would transport the flying squirrels to Chicago, officials explained, adding, "each of the new participants would not know the identity of the other suspects."

Through their investigation, officials learned that other species were also being trafficked, including protected freshwater turtles and alligators.

Additional arrests and charges are still to come, investigators said, and the case is being prosecuted by the Florida Attorney General’s Office.