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Irish Trafficker of Rhino Horns Pleads Guilty

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) - A 25-year-old Irish national pleaded guilty to buying and selling the horns of endangered rhinoceros in the United States.

In its announcement of Michael Slattery Jr.'s arrest this past September, the Justice Department had described him as a member of The Rathkeale Rovers.

Also known as Irish Travelers, Europol says this nomadic, tight-knit extended family group has been involved in an epidemic of raids on museums in Europe involving the theft of rhinoceros horns.

The group allegedly leverages the rising price for rhinoceros horns in the black market to be used for traditional medicines and carving.

There is no mention of this connection, however, in the announcement Tuesday that Slattery pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act

The crime carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, plus a criminal fine and forfeiture. Slattery faces sentencing before U.S. District Judge John Gleeson on Jan. 10, 2014.

Slattery has admitted that he traveled within the United States between May 2010 and April 2011 to purchase rhinoceros horns, and then resell them to private individuals or consign them to auction houses in the United States.

The Justice Department describes one instance in September 2010 where Slattery and others traveled from London to Houston, and then tried to buy a taxidermied black rhinoceros mount with two horns from a business in Austin, Texas.

Since the would-be buyers lacked proof of Texas residency, they recruited a "straw buyer" to buy the mount for $18,000.

An "Endangered Species Bill of Sale" that they were given with the mount stated: "[s]eller expressly states that the described taxidermy is an endangered species and that interstate or foreign sales, barter and trade are strictly prohibited .... [p]ursuant to [the Endangered Species Act]. Buyer has expressly stated that he/she is a current resident of the State of Texas and has no intention of participating in any form of interstate commerce involving the described taxidermy."

Nevertheless Slattery and his co-conspirators traveled to New York where they sold the horns from the mount and other horns they had acquired to an individual in Flushing, Queens, for $50,000, according to the plea described by the DOJ.

Slattery and his co-conspirators provided the purchaser with a false and fictitious "Endangered Species Bill of Sale." They were paid with cashier's checks, one of which was worth $12,500 and made payable to Michael Slattery Jr.

Prosecutors hail the take down of Slattery as the latest victory for Operation Crash, a nationwide, multiagency crackdown into illegal rhinoceros trade. The operation takes its name from the term crash given for a herd of rhinoceros.

Some Chinese people believe that drinking from rhinoceros horn cups with bring good health. The giant, prehistoric beasts are protected by U.S. and international laws. More than 90 percent of wild rhino populations have been slaughtered illegally since the 1970s, because of the price their horns can bring, the Justice Department says.

"South Africa, for example, has witnessed a rapid escalation in poaching of live animals, rising from 13 in 2007 to more than 618 in 2012," prosecutors said in the statement.

The only predator of the rhinoceros is humans. Prosecutors said increasing demand is partly responsible for fueling a thriving black market that includes fake antiques made from recently hunted rhinoceros.

"Instead of gaining a windfall by contributing to the demise of an age-old species, Slattery now faces up to five years in prison for his illegal conduct," U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement.

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