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Rathkeale Rovers from previous UK arrest. (courtesy Wildlife Justice Commission Case #6)

Eight convicted in France of ivory and rhino horn trafficking offences

The 9 defendants are of Irish, English, Vietnamese and Chinese origin.


  • September 8th, 2021: A Rennes criminal court convicted 8 of 9 defendants charged with importing, possessing, transporting and exporting elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn as part of an organized gang.
  • Individual names and corresponding sentences have not yet been made available but it is reported that 4 were sentenced to jail, with 2 of those sentences suspended. Arrest warrants are outstanding for 3 of the defendants who were tried in absentia.
  • More detail is below including an investigation summary from Robin du Bois , a case study on the Rathkeale Rovers by the Wildlife Justice Commission and a report on the faked Covid 19 certificate investigation.

Eight men convicted in French court for trafficking rhino horn and ivory

Kim Willsher in Paris and Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent
Wed 8 Sep 2021 23.06 BST (The Guardian)
A French court has convicted eight men including members of an Irish crime gang for trafficking rhino horn and ivory between Europe and east Asia.
Four men – three Irish and one English – said to be members of the Rathkeale Rovers gang were given prison terms, though two were spared jail as the sentences were suspended.
The court also imposed a total of €316,000 (£270,000) in fines.
Three of the men were not present at the special court in Rennes in west France and are the subject of international arrest warrants.
Charlotte Nithart, president of the Robin des Bois (Robin Hood) environmental group, welcomed the judgment she said was “educational and dissuasive … for all those who engage in wildlife trafficking and speculate on species threatened with extinction”.
“Before trafficking, there is poaching which causes social and environmental devastation,” she said after Wednesday’s verdict.
French prosecutors began investigating after police stopped a BMW car in a random motorway traffic inspection in September 2015 and found four uncertified elephant tusks and €32,800 in cash.
The occupants of the car, some of whom claimed they were antique dealers, were later found to be part of an international network of rhino horn and ivory traffickers including several of Chinese and Vietnamese origin.
Police said the Irish and English suspects were members of the Rathkeale Rovers, a criminal clan named after a town outside Limerick in southern Ireland. Rooted in the Travelling community, gang members have been linked to a bewildering range of scams across Europe, the Americas, Africa and Australia.
Detectives discovered the smugglers had two workshops in France to transform ivory and rhino horn into powder or flakes and other objects that were then exported to Vietnam and China to be used in traditional medicine.
One large horn weighing nearly 15kg was seized during the investigation. Robin des Bois said it would have been worth around €13m in exported products once processed.
Robin des Bois alleged that auction houses in Cannes, Toulouse and Le Puy had facilitated the export of tusks to Vietnam and China.
The Rathkeale Rovers were the target of a joint investigation by European police in 2010 that led to 31 people being arrested, including for the theft of rhino horns, the Europol police agency says on its website.
The gang has traded in illicit antiques, cigarettes, electrical goods, vintage cars and fake coronavirus test certificates.
It has tarmacking scams that con customers and contractors, earning nicknames in several languages: “asfaltaris Irlandese” in Italy, “teerkolonne” in Germany and “les faux bitumeurs” in France. The tarmackers have also reportedly operated in South America, Mexico, the US and South Africa.
Europol warned in February that members of the Rathkeale Rovers were using a mobile phone app to falsify coronavirus test results which were then sold to travellers.
In 2017 a federal court in Miami sentenced Michael Hegarty, regarded as a senior member of the gang, to 18 months in prison for smuggling a libation cup – a drinking vessel carved from rhino horn – from the US to England.

The International of Elephant and Rhino Gravediggers on Trial in Rennes, France (from translation)

September 6th, 2021, Rennes:

The trial of nine defendants charged with importing, possessing, transporting and exporting elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn as part of an organized gang opens this September 6, 2021 in the Rennes Criminal Court. Three defendants are on the run and an arrest warrant has been issued against them.
The investigation also led to the discovery of two workshops processing raw ivory and rhino horn on French soil. The 9 defendants are of Irish and English, Vietnamese and Chinese origin. They declare to be second-hand dealers, antique dealers, employees in the construction industry, manager of an import-export company, cook, computer specialist or unemployed.
The facts go back in particular to the night of September 10 to 11, 2015 when the customs of Poitiers check the three passengers of a BMW on the National 10 and find inside the vehicle 4 elephant tusks without any document justifying their legality, without any tangible element of traceability as well as 32,800 € in cash. The individuals are known to be members of the Rathkeale Rovers, a clan from Ireland engaging in roving crime in the European Union, the United Kingdom and the USA.
On May 25, 2016, investigators from the SNDJ (National Judicial Customs Service) seized in Seine-Saint-Denis, North Paris, in the warehouse operated by one of the defendants 14 raw ivory tusks of African origin and 2 worked tusks without any document justifying their legal origin and with a total weight of 212 kg.
On November 15, 2016, in a room of the B&B hotel in Creil near to Paris, two brothers of Irish and English origin were intercepted with a rhinoceros horn of exceptional weight (14.7 kg) devoid of any document justifying its legal origin. The seizure took place close to the “Dragon de Saint-Maximin”, a Chinese restaurant whose manager is one of the defendants.
The investigation showed that several auction houses in Cannes, Toulouse, and Le Puy facilitated the export of elephant tusks to Vietnam by invoicing with an address in Vietnam raw tusks that were supposedly not allowed to legally leave the European Union.
In the course of the investigation, 32 raw ivory tusks and 11 worked tusks were seized. Some of the tusks were from young elephants and some of the ivory was recent, dating back to the 1990s and 2000s.
At the time of the events, the retail value of a kilo of ivory on the Asian market was around 5,000 US$ per kilo and rhino horn was retailing for 1,000 US$ per gram.
Before smuggling, its bargaining and swindles, there is poaching with its cruelties. Wildlife trafficking also contributes to the destructuring and impoverishment of ecosystems, encourages speculation in elephant ivory and rhino horns and thus stimulates poaching.
Since 2013, the NGO Robin des Bois has published “On the Trail” (1), the defaunation’s quarterly bulletin reporting on poaching and smuggling of endangered animals around the world. “On the Trail” regularly analyzes elephant ivory and rhino horn smuggling routes from Europe, seizures in France on Vietnamese and Chinese nationals, seizures in Vietnam and China of ivory and horn from France, and the actions of the Rathkeale Rovers.
At the time of the notification of the referral order to the criminal court, on June 5, 2020, only the NGO Robin des Bois was civil party.
According to the Customs Code, the Environmental Code and the Penal Code, the defendants are liable to 3 to 10 years imprisonment and fines of 75,000 € to 750,000 € up to 10 times the domestic market value of the seizures. The hearings will take place until September 8, 2021.

Wildlife Justice Commission – Crime Convergence Report Case Study #6 – Rathkeale Rovers

The Rathkeale Rovers are an organized crime net-work of “travelling traders” based in Ireland but operating internationally across a range of criminal activities including fraud, money laundering, drug smuggling, and art theft.
They are particularly notorious for their fraudulent schemes which have included trading in bogus electrical goods, counterfeit antiques, and tarmacking scams. The Rathkeale Rovers are a classic example of a diversified network that actively seeks new criminal opportunities to exploit.
As rhino poaching began to escalate in South Africa from 2010 due to the high demand and high prices rhino horn commanded in the black markets in Asia, the Rathkeale Rovers master-minded an opportunity to exploit this trade from Europe. The group was behind a spate of organised robberies at museums, zoos, and auction houses across Europe targeting the theft of rhino horns and mounted rhino heads worth millions of Euros between 2010 to 2013.
During this period, 58 theft incidents involving 95 rhino horns occurred in Germany, France, Portugal, United Kingdom,Italy, the Netherlands, and Ireland. Europol coordinated a large joint investigation called Operation Oakleaf to tackle the thefts, with the participation of law enforcement agencies from 17 countries. In total, 31 members of the Rathkeale Rovers were arrested.
During the sentencing of 14 members of the group that had been arrested in the United Kingdom in April 2016, it was described as an “extremely sophisticated conspiracy” None of the stolen horns were recovered and all are believed to have been trafficked to Asia. Several rhino horn trafficking cases involving the Rathkeale Rovers were also linked to the United States.
The robberies prompted many museums and other institutions across Europe to increase the security of their exhibits and remove rhino horns from display. As a result of these increased security measures and the successful law enforcement response there have not been any further thefts of rhino horn from museums or other institutions, highlighting the opportunistic nature of convergence in this case.
However, the group continues to operate and expand into other lines of criminal activity and has most recently been reported to be trading in forged negative COVID-19 test certificates.

Europol ‘deletes’ reference to “Rathkeale Rovers” gang in false negative COVID certificate investigation 

February 4, 2021: 

EUROPOL has deleted a specific reference to the “Rathkeale Rovers” crime gang from a press release it issued last Monday, which stated the gang, which has its origins in Co Limerick, was allegedly using a mobile app allowing members to falsify ‘negative’ COVID-19 test certificates.

The EU’s law enforcement agency stated on February 1st: “As long as travel restrictions remain in place due to the pandemic, it is very likely that criminals will seize the opportunity of producing and selling fake COVID-19 test certificates. Several cases have already emerged of fraudulent COVID-19 test certificates being sold.”
“Europol received additional intelligence on the alleged use of a mobile application by the Rathkeale Rovers Mobile Organised Crime Group which allows members of the organised crime group to manually falsify test results,” it added.
However, the reference to the Rathkeale crime network has since been deleted by Europol.
When asked about the matter, a Europol spokeswoman replied: “Yes, we deleted the term from the press release. Several types of criminal networks across the EU are involved and we decided not to point at one single group.”
“For more on the Rovers, you should contact Garda Síochána,” they added.
Europol said that several cases have already emerged of fraudulent COVID-19 test certificates being sold to air travellers:
• A forgery ring selling negative test results to passengers was dismantled at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France;
• In the UK, fraudsters were caught selling bogus COVID-19 documents for GBP 100;
• In December 2020, a fraudster was apprehended by the Spanish National Police for selling fake test results for EUR 40.
“Given the widespread technological means available, in the form of high-quality printers and different software, fraudsters are able to produce high-quality counterfeit, forged or fake documents.”
“Member States are encouraged to share any relevant information on criminal activities related to fake COVID-19 test documentation with Europol.”
When asked if gardai had liaised with Europol about the EU police agency’s “intelligence” relating to the Rathkeale Rovers, a garda spokesman replied: “An Garda Siochana does not discuss operation matters. Any questions on Europol Press Releases should be directed to Europol.”
“There is no evidence of the sale of fraudulent PCR tests in this jurisdiction at the time,” the garda spokesman added.
Informed sources said gardai were surprised the Rovers gang were identified in an external public document in relation to criminal allegations.
It is normal protocol within An Garda Siochana not to identify suspects in alleged criminal cases, and members rarely even comment on accused persons after they have been convicted of a crime.
Gardai did not comment on information from reliable sources in Rathkeale that hundreds of visitors are expected to arrive in the town ahead of Valentine’s Day when it is traditional for visiting members of the Traveller community to hold “pop up marriage proposal parties” and large weddings.
Gardai said they do not discuss operational procedures, in response to being asked if they were preparing a Valentine’s Day policing plan, similar to a plans normally implemented during Christmas and New Year periods, when thousands of people traditionally visit the town.

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