An Irish traveller family single-handledly flooded the world with illegal rhino horn worth millions of pounds through a criminal network spanning the globe, it has been claimed.
The gang from Rathkeale, in Limerick, Ireland, are thought to have been responsible for an epidemic of burglaries on more than 100 museums and auction houses across Europe since 2011 in their pursuit of the illicit product.
Now new details of the lengths detectives went to in order to disrupt the major criminal network have emerged.
Stolen: A gang of thieves took these rhino heads from the National Museum in Ireland which have horns worth £427,000
Investigators from 33 European countries joined forces with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an attempt to bring down the so-called Rathkeale Rovers - an nexus of interrelated clans from the small Irish village.
Years of following leads from America to Europe finally culminated in a raid on a traveller site in Cambridge in April 2013.
Police made 19 arrests in connection with six burglaries at museums and an auction house over four months in 2011.
But that single raid helped unravel a much more complicated criminal network cashing in on the huge profits available from the illegal ivory trade.
Raided: The horn from a preserved black rhinoceros was stolen from the Cron hunting trophy collection at the Museum in Ritterhaus in Offenburg, southern Germany
Rhino-mafia: Four unidentifiable people stole two horns of the rhinoceros in broad daylight during the museum's opening time in February 2012
Worth more than gold, cocaine or heroine, punishment for importing rhino horn are negligible - around 10 years for a first-time smuggler caught with 1kg of heroin, or under a year for someone caught importing the same weight in rhino horn.
'Now horn in the United States is selling anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 a pound,' Edward Grace, deputy assistant director for law enforcement at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington told Business Week.
'By the time it gets to Asia, a single horn can easily be worth $500,000.'
Authorities were first put on the trail of an Irish connection to the $10bn a year illegal industry following the arrest of two Limerick brothers in 2010 at Shannon Airport.
Jeremiah, 33, and Michael O'Brien, 33, were caught illegally attempting to import rhino horns worth almost €500,000.
Crackdown: Police raid a traveller site in Cambridge during a massive police operation to arrest a gang of criminals behind burglaries of museums and auction houses across Europe
Both pleaded guilty to the illegal importation of four rhino horns valued at €231,760.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, U.S. officials started on the trail when an Irishman calling himself John Sullivan was caught in a sting trying to export rhino horn from America.
Intelligence had begun to link attempts to purchase rhino horn with a clan of Irish travellers had been on authorities radar for years.
Detectives in America to contact counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic and began to join the dots on a worldwide conspiracy to steal rhino horn and sell it illegally, usually to the lucrative Asian market.
In 2011, Europol issued a warning that an Irish Gypsy criminal network responsible for dozens of thefts of rhino horns across Europe under an operation codenamed Oakleaf.
By the end of summer 2011, there had been 19 more thefts or attempted robberies from museums and collections in France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the U.K
In April, 2012, masked men stole stuffed rhinoceros heads bearing eight valuable horns from the warehouse of Ireland's National Museum.
Officials immediately linked the raid on a storeroom in Swords, north of Dublin, to the Irish Gypsy gang that specialised in similar heists across Europe.
Discovered: Detective probing the theft of hundreds of thousands of pounds of illegal rhino horn discovered a complicated criminal network based in the small village of Rathkeale, Ireland
Evidence began to stack up linking the series of thefts of high-value rhino horn on Rathkeale.
One of the burglars behind a break-in at Portugal’s Coimbra museum in April 2011 made a phonecall from inside the building at 1am to an Irish cell phone registered to the wife of a senior member of one of the Rathkeale clans.
In January 2013, a series of coordinated raids across eight European countries led to the arrests of 30 more individuals with Rathkeale connections.
On September 13, 2013, the climax of Operation Oakleaf, police staged simultaneous raids on eight locations in the U.K. and Ireland - discovering a stash of rhino horn.
Michael Kealy of Rathkeale was arrested on a European warrant for his involvement in the daylight robbery of a rhino horn from an auctioneer in a McDonald’s car park in Britain, and later served three months in prison for his part in the crime.
In November, Michael Slattery Jr, of Rathkeale, plead guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, which forbids trade in illegally obtained wildlife. He will be sentenced this month.
Since Operation Oakleaf concluded the spate of rhino horn burglaries in Europe has subsided.
But the horns taken from the natural history museum of Ireland’s storage facility in April 2013 have not been recovered.
No arrests have been made, but law enforcement officials told Business Week that they have little doubt the Rovers are responsible.