A 40-year-old Irish man has been sentenced to 18 months in prison in the United States for his role in smuggling rhinoceros horn.

Michael Hegarty, part of international criminal gang the Rathkeale Rovers, pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced in a federal court in Miami.

The gang is named the Rathkeale Rovers because of its members' connections to the Co Limerick town.

Judge Donald Middlebrooks sentenced Hegarty to 18 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.

Hegarty, another man Richard Sheridan, and a third man from Florida, were originally charged with conspiring to traffic a libation cup made from endangered rhino horn, with smuggling the cup to the UK and with obstructing justice for attempting to influence a witness.

Hegarty was arrested on 19 January in Belgium and was extradited to the US in July.

His arrest was part of Operation Crash, a US-wide crackdown on criminal trafficking in rhinoceros horn.

In Hegarty's case, he and another man purchased the libation cup in North Carolina and then transported it to Florida, where they falsified papers to smuggle it out of the US.

Other members of the gang were arrested in London as they were trying to sell the rhino horn cup to a Hong Kong native.

All species of rhinoceros are protected under US and international law, and, since 1976, the trade in rhino horn has been regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Operation Crash in the US was led by the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service.

Speaking after the sentence was handed down, Acting Chief of Law Enforcement Ed Grace said that the sentencing sent "a message to those who profit from the slaughter and illicit trade of wildlife, you will be caught and prosecuted no matter where you hide".

He commended his special agents who he said had "connected this defendant to the Rathkeale Rovers, a transnational organised crime syndicate responsible for trafficking endangered rhinoceros products worldwide."

The US Department of Justice said the 18-month sentence handed down to Hegarty was at the "high end" of the range appropriate for the crime.