An Irishman faces up to five years in prison for his involvement in trafficking rhino horns.

Michael Slattery Jr pleaded guilty in a federal court in Brooklyn, NY to forging documents relating to the illegal sale of horns from endangered black rhinos to a New York collector for $50,000. US prosecutors say Slattery is linked to a criminal gang from Rathkeale, Co Limerick known as the Rathkeale Rovers.

Slattery was arrested in September at Newark Airport where he was boarding a flight to London. His arrest was part of Operation Crash, which focuses on the black market trade in rhino horns.

Prosecutors say in 2010 Slattery used a day laborer as a “straw buyer,” someone who makes a purchase on behalf of another person who can not do so because of poor credit or legal obstacles, to purchase a black rhino mount for $18,000 from a taxidermy auction house in Austin, Texas. Only Texas residents were able to make purchases. Slattery and his co-conspirators later sold the horns from the mount to an individual in Flushing, NY and provided the buyer with a false “endangered species bill of sale.”

reported that Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert Dreher said, “Slattery and his co-conspirators traveled to the United States to profit from the illegal trade in black rhinoceros horns.” He continued, “The black rhino is a species that, without our protection, could be headed for extinction in our own time. Rhino horn trafficking is a violation of the laws enacted by Congress to protect endangered species from extinction and the Justice Department will aggressively prosecute those who engage in this egregious market.”

Rhinoceroses have been hunted close to extinction in Africa and South Asia because their powdered horns are sold as an aphrodisiac and a cure for cancer. The horns have no documented medical value.

The European Union’s law enforcement agency Euorpol released a warning in 2011 that the Rathkeale Rovers were responsible for the theft of dozens of rhino horns across Europe. Europol said they had targeted museums, galleries, zoos, auction houses, antique dealers and private collections.

Slattery will be sentenced on January 10, 2014.