S. Africa jails Thai rhino horn trader for 40 years

A Thai national who pleaded guilty to running bogus rhino hunts as cover to sell horns on the black market was sentenced to 40 years in a South African jail on Friday in a landmark ruling.

Chumlong Lemtongthai received the unusually harsh sentence from a Johannesburg magistrate court, amid a record number of rhino killings this year.

Lemtongthai admitted to paying prostitutes to pose as hunters, in order to harvest horns, which were then sold on Asia's lucrative traditional medicine market.

The group is thought to have netted around 26 rhino horns.

In a statement, Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe told AFP the magistrate's decision was "an appropriate sentence that fits the crime."

In handing down the jail term, magistrate Prince Manyathi said: "I do not want to see a situation where my grandchildren will only be able to see rhino in a picture," according to EyeWitness News.

South Africa is home to around 80 percent of the world's rhinos, with more than 18,000 white rhinos in the country and around 1,600 critically endangered black rhinos.

The population forms a linchpin of the country's famed "Big Five" biodiversity and of its lucrative safari industry.

But a dizzying spike in rhino killings has put the future of the animals in doubt.

South African officials say 528 rhinos have been killed already this year, shattering previous annual records.

Most of the rhinos are killed in the world-famous Kruger National Park and their horns turn up in Vietnam, China and other east Asian nations.

The animals' distinctive horns are used to produce a fingernail-like substance that is falsely believed to have powerful healing properties.

While Lemtongthai was not accused of poaching, his case exposed deep flaws in South Africa's system of granting legal hunting permits.

The Thai national was sentenced after pleading guilty on Monday and apologising to the country where anti-poaching sentiment runs high.

"I humbly apologise to the court and to the people of South Africa for my role in this matter," he said in a statement to the court.

Government prosecutors had called for Lemtongthai to receive a 260 year sentence for abusing the system, which has since been reformed.

Hunters are now allowed to kill only one white rhino a year, and officials must consider whether an applicant's home country has enough legislation to counter illicit trophy trade.

National Prosecuting Authority spokeswoman Phindi Louw welcomed Friday's ruling.

"It will send a strong message that as South Africans, we will do everything in our power to preserve our heritage," she told AFP.

"We believe it's an appropriate sentence that will be able to send a message that as a country we will never tolerate people who come in our country, unlawfully so, with the purpose of destroying our wildlife."

Conservationists also welcomed the decision.

"We think it's fantastic news. It's the harshest sentence handed out for a wildlife crime in South Africa to date," said Jo Shaw, WWF South Africa's rhino coordinator.

However Shaw criticised the decision to drop charges against Lemtongthai's South African co-accused.

"We are disappointed that South Africa doesn't seem to be sending a similarly strong message about the involvement of its own citizens and we do very much hope to see those charges reinstated."

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