After the Michael Flatley theft: Irish criminals’ role in rhino horn trafficking
Irish people have been jailed in a US clampdown on the illegal trade in elephant ivory, rhino horns, turtle shells and other endangered wildlife products, which is worth up to $10 billion a year
Targeting rhinos: a tranquiliser dart is fired at a wild male black rhinoceros in Kenya, as part of a conservation effort that includes cutting rhinos’ horns, to combat the trade in them. Photograph: Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty
Smuggled: carved rhino horns seized by Hong Kong customs officials. Photograph: Lam Yik Fei/Getty
Cure-all?: a woman in Hanoi grinds rhino horn into powder, which in Vietnam is believed to cure cancer. Photograph: AFP/Getty
An undercover agent at the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s law-enforcement office received an email, on November 10th, 2010, from a man who identified himself as John Sullivan and purported to be in Ireland.
Sullivan said he was searching for a rhinoceros mount or horn to decorate a castle he owned. He had emailed the agent and a secret informant to say he was in the antique-furniture business, had plenty of money and could easily get horns out of the US to Ireland in containers filled with furniture, avoiding detection under US law prohibiting the trafficking of endangered rhino horns.
“Believe ME WE NEVER LOSES A HORN TO CUSTOMS, we have so many contacts and people payed off now, we can bring anything we want out of nearly any country into Europe,” he wrote.
The previous week Sullivan had told the agent, whose name is Curtis Graves, that he could “make it worth my time” because “it pays to be a good middleman”. Sullivan spoke “in a thick accent which sounded to me like an Irish brogue”, Graves said in a court filing.
Less than two weeks later, after an exchange of emails from an eager Sullivan looking to buy as much rhino horn as possible, Graves met two Irish nationals, Michael Hegarty and Richard O’Brien.
They flew into the US through Atlanta on a flight from Dublin for a five-day trip. The two men paid the undercover agent €12,850 for four rhino horns at the informant’s home in Commerce City, Colorado. As soon as the purchase was complete the men were arrested and charged.
Hegarty and O’Brien pleaded guilty to illegal smuggling and were sentenced to six months in a Colorado prison. The sting was the first instance of rhino-horn smuggling involving members of the Irish Traveller community linked to a gang in Co Limerick. It was not the last.
In January a cousin of one of the men, 25-year-old Michael Slattery jnr, was sentenced to 14 months in prison by a New York court for offences relating to illegal rhino-horn trafficking. Between May 2010 and April 2011 he bought two rhino horns in Texas for $18,000 (€13,500), using a “straw buyer” – someone else who completes the transaction – and was caught selling four endangered black-rhino horns to a New York collector for $50,000 (€37,000).
The Irish criminal gang is suspected of targeting museums, galleries, zoos, antique dealers and private collectors in Britain, Europe, the US and South America. Gardaí were last week called to the Co Cork home of the dancer Michael Flatley after rhino horn was stolen from his mansion.
The US government estimates that the illegal trade in endangered-wildlife products, including elephant ivory, rhino horns and turtle shells, is worth up to $10 billion a year. Rhino horn trades for up to $50,000 a kilo on the black market, according to the US congressional research service, making it more valuable than gold or platinum.
A single rhino horn can sell for well above $500,000 in the Far East, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service. In China the wealthy value it for medicinal purposes.