Earlier this year, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officers made the first arrests in a series, which now totals seven suspects and 25 felony charges with additional arrests forthcoming. This group of suspects have been charged with Racketeering, Money Laundering, Scheming to Defraud and other organized criminal laws involving an elaborate organized enterprise to smuggle Florida’s wildlife to interstate and international buyers.
In January 2019, the FWC received a complaint from a concerned citizen about individuals illegally trapping flying squirrels in a rural area of Marion County. Flying squirrels, a protected wild animal in Florida, are sold internationally in the pet trade. Over the next 19 months, FWC Investigators pieced together an elaborate scheme in which flying squirrels were illegally captured by poachers in multiple counties throughout central Florida. The flying squirrels 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, not wildlife.
The poachers 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. 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.
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.
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.
“A State and Federal Task Force was created and was instrumental in accomplishing this operation,” said Maj. Grant Burton, FWC Investigation’s section leader.
The Illinois Conservation Police, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Homeland Security Investigations worked closely together to collect evidence of the international smuggling operation. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife was also instrumental in intercepting wildlife shipments to California. The FWC Investigators detected illegally taken freshwater turtles were shipped from Tampa International Airport to Los Angeles. California agents were notified and intercepted the wildlife shipments.
“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.
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.