EU clampdown targets Irish gang at heart of illegal rhino horn trade
An Irish criminal network suspected of being at the forefront of the illegal rhinoceros horn trade is being targeted as part of a new EU clampdown on wildlife trafficking.
The gang, dubbed the Rathkeale Rovers, is one of the main targets of the EU action plan.
More than a dozen members of the group were convicted in the UK over the course of the past year for involvement in a plot to steal rhino horns and artefacts worth almost €73m.
But despite the convictions, the international organisation, made up of a network of Traveller families with links to the Co Limerick town, remains a key target of police forces across the continent.
The gang has dominated the multi-million euro global trade in stolen rhino horn and has been linked with a spate of robberies across Europe in recent years.
These include the theft of rhino horn valued at €500,000 from a National History Museum warehouse in Dublin in 2014, as well as a raid on the home of dancer Michael Flatley in Co Cork the same year.
A new European Commission action plan aimed at tackling wildlife smuggling will see enhanced co-operation between police forces in a bid to tackle gangs such as the Rathkeale Rovers.
It also commits police forces to putting resources into examining the money laundering and cyber activities of gangs associated with the trade.
Under the plan, EU member states will also be asked to increase the maximum sentence for importing or exporting rhino horn without a licence or necessary permits to four years in jail by the end of 2017.
The maximum penalty for the offence in Ireland is a fine of up to €100,000 and two years in prison.
In Ireland, the black rhinoceros and white rhinoceros are both listed species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Trading in specimens, including horns, is prohibited without appropriate certification.
But there has only been one prosecution for the illegal importation of rhino horn in Ireland in recent years. It resulted in fines of €500 each for the two men involved.
Rhino horn trading is lucrative, with a single horn fetching up to €200,000 on the Chinese market, where they are used in traditional medicine, for decorating luxury products, and as an aphrodisiac.
Members of the Rathkeale Rovers have previously been targeted by the Criminal Assets Bureau.
According to a Europol report, the criminal network has targeted antique dealers, auction houses, art galleries, museums, private collections and zoos, resorting to theft and aggravated burglary where necessary.
It believes elements of this group are also involved in drug-trafficking, organised robbery, distribution of counterfeit products, tarmac fraud and money laundering.
Outside the EU, they have been active in North and South America, South Africa, China and Australia.
The use of "intimidation and violence" is a key part of their strategy.
On Monday, it emerged that 14 members of the group had been convicted of offences over the past 11 months.
Four of the men were convicted on Monday at Birmingham Crown Court of helping to plan raids at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum and Durham's Oriental Museum.
The convictions allowed for the lifting of reporting restrictions on other cases and it emerged 10 other members of the gang had previously been convicted for their part in the raids. Police said the stolen items would have fetched up to Stg£57m (€73m) on the Chinese market.
One Ming Dynasty vase stolen from Durham University was valued at around Stg£16m (€20m). It was recovered dumped on waste ground after the raid.
The gang has previously been targeted by law enforcement operations in the US.