a flying squirrel with its arms sprawled out on either side

Exclusive: Inside Florida’s alleged flying squirrel smuggling operation

Investigators say thousands of squirrels have been illegally trapped and sent to South Korea as pets.

Southern flying squirrels have been targeted by poachers in Florida for at least the past five years. The animals are popular pets in Southeast Asia.

Photograph by Kim Taylor, Nature Picture Library

Most people never noticed the flying squirrels in Florida’s woods. Even after hundreds, then thousands, of the small, brown rodents started disappearing, many of their human neighbors didn’t suspect anything was wrong. The squirrels sleep during the day, only emerging from their nests at dusk to glide—not actually fly—from tree to tree, covering up to 160 feet with each leap and executing magnificent loops and turns in pursuit of acorns and hickory nuts. Their chirps, often emitted at frequencies outside the range of human hearing, are easy to miss too.

Yet the flying squirrels were in trouble.

Florida wildlife officials allege that the animals, which number somewhere in the tens of thousands in the state, are being poached from people’s backyards and

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