By JULIA JACOBO, ABC News

(BUSHNELL, Fla.) — Wildlife officials in Florida have charged seven people connected to a trafficking ring that allegedly smuggled thousands of flying squirrels to Asia.

The poachers set up as many as 10,000 traps in multiple counties in what officials called an “elaborate” scheme to sell the trapped squirrels to a wildlife dealer in the Central Florida city of Bushnell, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) Commission.

The animals were then allegedly laundered through the licensed business of this dealer, who claimed they were captive bred, not wildlife.

Buyers from South Korea would travel to Florida and purchase the squirrels, which are native to the state, from the dealer in Bushnell. The squirrels were then driven by rental car to Chicago, where they were exported to Asia by an “unwitting” international wildlife exporter, officials said.

Couriers from the state of Georgia later took over the transports as the operation expanded, said officials.

As many as 3,600 flying squirrels were captured in less than three years, which earned the dealer $213,800 in gross illegal proceeds, officials said. FWC officials estimated that the international retail value of the poached wildlife exceeds $1 million.

Flying squirrels are protected in the state of Florida. The FWC became aware of the activity after receiving a complaint in January 2019 detailing individuals illegally trapping flying squirrels in a rural area of Marion County.

It is likely that buyers in Asia were purchasing the squirrels as pets, according to the an official with the Humane Society of the United States.

“The public’s desire to keep wild animals as pets contributes to an industry plagued with cruelties,” Kate MacFall, Humane Society of the United States Florida senior state director, said in a statement. “In both the legal and illegal wildlife trade, countless wild animals suffer greatly or die due to negligent treatment in the process of capture, at crowded breeder and dealer facilities, in transport, and ultimately possession by families who eventually become overwhelmed by the specialized level of care required.”

During the Florida investigation, authorities also learned of the illegal trade of other poached animals, such as protected freshwater turtles and alligators. Documents for the sale of those animals were falsified, concealing the true source of the wildlife, according to the FWC.

Multiple agencies across the country were involved in the investigation, including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which intercepted wildlife shipments of freshwater turtles to California.

The poachers could have “severely” damaged the state’s wildlife populations, FWC lead investigator Maj. Grant Burton said in a statement.

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