Earlier today, a federal magistrate judge in Brooklyn detained an Irish national who was arrested on Saturday and charged in a complaint for false labeling in connection with his alleged role in international rhinoceros horn smuggling in violation of the Lacey Act. The arrest and charge is a result of “Operation Crash,” a nationwide effort led by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of endangered rhinoceros horns.
The Department of Justice filed a complaint in federal court in the Eastern District of New York alleging that Michael Slattery, Jr., a 25-year-old Irish national, fraudulently purchased a set of black rhinoceros horns in Texas and then travelled to New York and used a falsified document to sell the horns for $50,000.
The charge and arrest were announced by Loretta E. Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Robert G. Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division.
According to the complaint filed in on September 14, 2013, in 2010 Slattery traveled from England to Texas to acquire black rhinoceros horns. Slattery and others then used a day laborer with a Texas driver’s license as a straw buyer to purchase two horns from an auction house in Austin. The complaint charges that Slattery and his group then traveled to New York where they presented a fraudulent Endangered Species Bill of Sale and sold those two and two other horns to an individual for $50,000.
According to court records and government statements made in court, Slattery is a member of The Rathkeale Rovers (also known as the “Irish Travelers”), which are tight-knit extended family groups that live a nomadic lifestyle. The group leverages the rising price for rhinoceros horns in the black market to be used for traditional medicines and carving. According to information made public by Europol, the Rathkeale Rovers have been involved in an epidemic of raids on museums in Europe in which rhinoceros horns have been stolen.
Rhinoceros are an herbivore species of prehistoric origin and one of the largest remaining mega-fauna on earth. They have no known predators other than humans. All species of rhinoceros are protected under United States and international law, and all black rhinoceros species are endangered. Since 1976, trade in rhinoceros horn has been regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty signed by more than 175 countries around the world to protect fish, wildlife and plants that are or may become imperiled due to the demands of international markets. Nevertheless, the demand for rhinoceros horn and black market prices have skyrocketed in recent years due to the value that some cultures have placed on ornamental carvings, good luck charms or alleged medicinal purposes, leading to a decimation of the global rhinoceros population. In China, there is a tradition dating back centuries of intricately carved rhinoceros horn cups. Drinking from such a cup was believed to bring good health and such carvings are highly prized by collectors. As a result of this demand, rhino populations have declined by more than 90 percent since 1970. 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.
The charge in the complaint is merely and allegation, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. The government’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Julia Nestor of the Eastern District of New York and Trial Attorney Gary N. Donner of the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division.