Poachers in Central Florida caught thousands of flying squirrels and sold them to buyers in South Korea, according to state wildlife investigators, who have described a broad wildlife trafficking scheme centered north of Tampa in Bushnell.
Flying squirrels are small rodents that glide between trees using a membrane stretched between their limbs. They are generally less than a foot long, according to the National Wildlife Federation, and grayish brown with big black eyes. They are active at night.
Trappers may have illegally caught more than 3,500 squirrels, which are protected in Florida, over three years, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They set up to 10,000 traps in trees around the region. In some places, including South Korea, flying squirrels have found demand as pets.
The dealer at the center of the operation netted as much as $213,800, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said, though the agency estimated the retail value of the captured animals at more than $1 million. That man, Rodney Knox, 66, of Bushnell, was the subject of a recent National Geographic report on the trafficking scheme.
He faces charges including racketeering, money laundering, dealing in stolen property and grand theft, investigators said.
Also accused in the case and facing charges including conspiracy to commit racketeering: Kenneth Lee Roebuck, 59, of Lake Panasoffkee; Donald Lee Harrod Jr., 49, of Bushnell; Vester Taylor Jr., 40, of Webster; and Jong Yun Baek, 56, of Marietta, Ga.
Ervin Woodyard Jr., 40, of Greenville, Ga. is accused of unlawful possession of wildlife, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The agency announced it is looking for at least one more person believed to be involved in the operation.
Someone tipped investigators to flying squirrel trapping in January 2019. National Geographic described some of the traps as located near neighborhoods, including in Hernando County, and looking nondescript like wooden bird boxes. People from South Korea visited the United States to buy the animals, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said. Knox relied on drivers in rental cars to move flying squirrels to Chicago, where they were packaged and shipped overseas, according to investigators.
While looking into the case, authorities said, they discovered he also dealt in illegally trapped turtles and alligators. Poachers caught the turtles and sent them by plane from Tampa to Los Angeles, agency officials said.
“Wildlife conservation laws protect Florida’s precious natural resources from abuse,” said Maj. Grant Burton, who leads the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s investigations section, in a statement Monday.
State wildlife authorities ask anyone who suspects people are breaking conservation laws to call a hotline, at 888-404-3922, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.