• The poachers laid out 10,000 traps and caught 3,600 flying squirrels
  • Two subspecies are considered endangered
  • The small, brown rodents have gained popularity as exotic pets in South Korea

Florida wildlife officials have accused seven people of capturing 3,600 protected flying squirrels and selling them overseas in an operation estimated to be worth $1 million.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission arrested six of the accused individuals. The seventh was a fugitive.

The suspects were charged with racketeering, money laundering, scheming to defraud and other charges, the commission said in a press release Monday.

The commission said it began its investigation in January 2019 following a tip indicating the nocturnal rodents were being trapped and sold internationally.

Investigators allege the flying squirrels were poached in several central Florida counties and sold to Bushnell wildlife breeder Rodney Crendell Knox, 66, owner of Knox Farm, who maintained the creatures had been bred in captivity and allegedly received $213,800 for participating in the scheme.

The poachers set out as many as 10,000 traps, capturing 3,600 flying squirrels in less than three years.

The animals were sold to buyers from South Korea who traveled to the U.S. to make their purchases. The squirrels were taken to an unwitting animal exporter in Chicago where they were prepared for transport.

The investigation also revealed the suspects poached other animals, including freshwater turtles and alligators.

“If it crawls or flies in Florida, and there’s a market for it, and it’s legal, I’ll catch it … and if I can’t, I’ll figure a way,” Knox told wildlife officers during the course of the investigation, National Geographic reported. Knox was arrested in April.

Two subspecies of flying squirrels are listed as endangered and are protected by Florida law.

The squirrels don’t actually fly. Rather, they acrobatically leap from tree to tree, often covering 160 feet at a time in their search for acorns and hickory nuts.

Florida wildlife officials estimate the creatures, which have gained popularity as exotic pets, number in the tens of thousands in Florida.