A man who smuggled an endangered rhinoceros horn from Miami to London pleaded guilty in federal court in Miami Sunday, officials said.
Forty-year-old Michael Hegarty, an Irish national, managed to conceal the rhino horn in his luggage because it was carved into a Chinese libation cup — a small religious container used to pour wine or other liquid in honor of a deity.
The bust was part of Operation Crash, an effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice to detect, deter and prosecute those engaged in the illegal killing of rhinoceros and the unlawful smuggling of rhinoceros horns.
In 2016, the wholesale market for rhino horn was roughly a quarter of a billion dollars, according to NPR, but the prices vary by country.
Trafficking of the horn is a violation of the endangered species act, officials said. Hegarty faces up to 10 years in prison.
Various species of rhinoceros have been listed as endangered since 1970 including the Black, Great Indian, Javan, Northern White and Sumatran rhinoceros. The horn Hegarty smuggled was that of a Great Indian.
Hegarty will be sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks on Nov. 14. He faces a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison, followed by up to three years of supervised release, and a maximum fine of $250,000, or up to twice the gross gain.
Federal authorities say Hegarty and a co-conspirator, Richard Sheridan, traveled from London to Miami in 2012. They joined a Miami resident at an auction in Rockingham, North Carolina.
“At the auction, Sheridan actually functioned as the bidder on behalf of the three individuals, and made the winning bid for a rhinoceros horn libation cup for $57,500,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a press release, adding that a wire transfer was then sent from a bank account in Miami to the auction house in North Carolina as payment for the rhino cup.
The duo traveled back to London with the horn because they needed to fix some flaws on the cup before trying to resell it for a profit. About a month later, Sheridan was arrested by Metropolitan Police in Wandsworth, London, while attempting to sell the same rhinoceros horn libation cup to a Hong Kong native, authorities said.
Shortly after, Hegarty was arrested in Belgium on the charges on an Interpol Red Notice. He was then extradited to the United States.
“By trafficking in wildlife products, such as items made from a rhinoceros horn, smugglers are fueling the illegal trade in endangered wildlife, which may ultimately lead to the species extinction,” said Ed Grace, acting assistant director of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rhino horns are in astronomical demand predominantly for use in Asian medicine that’s sold by the gram. In the last few decades, rhino horn has also being sold in the black market as a cure for cancer, a party drug, health supplement, aphrodisiac and a hangover cure, according to National Geographic Magazine.