Gardaí in Limerick have seized a rare and extremely valuable Chinese rhinoceros cup, following raids in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, led by the Criminal Assets Bureau.
Eleven properties were raided in the town by more than 50 gardaí, who also seized up to €100,000 in cash, three highly-valuable watches, along with bank statements and other documents.
The Garda operation is part of an international investigation into the so-called “Rathkeale Rovers” criminal Traveller gang and follows a trial in Britain in April.
In that case more than a dozen travellers were given lengthy sentences for involvement in a €73 million plot to seize rhinoceros horn artefacts from museums and homes, which are each worth hundreds of thousands of euro.
“One piece of [rhino horn] was seized in the searches. It’s a [Chinese] libation cup, made from rhino horn. We are examining it to make sure it is what we believe it to be,” said a Garda source.
In the past, members of the Rathkeale Rovers have been known to have been involved in rhino horn thefts across Europe. In other case, they have been involved in the sale of illegally-killed rhinos in Africa and Asia.
The illegal hunting now threatens the survival of the species. The horn is highly prized in Asia, particularly, where the horn is believed to have medicinal properties.
The Garda said the Cab and local officers investigating “an organised crime gang in Rathkeale” had raided seven houses and four businesses in the town.
The watches alone are believed to be worth more than €100,000. “The search phase has finished and the investigation phase will continue for some time,” said a source.
A large volume of documents, including paperwork linking people with assets held in the UK and elsewhere will now be examined closely by specialist Cab officers.
"The Criminal Assets Bureau investigation relates to suspected criminal activity by an organised crime gang in Ireland, the UK and Europe," said gardaí.
Two men, aged in their early 20s and late 40s, were arrested and charged before Limerick District Court following minor public order incidents during the the raids. The two men were granted bail on strict conditions.
About 1,500 British-based Travellers come to Rathkeale every Christmas. “A lot of them are there now. There’s probably around 1,200 already back. A lot of caravans have arrived back again,” said a Garda source.