A Thai national who pleaded guilty to organizing bogus trophy hunts to sell rhino horns on the international black market was sentenced to 40 years in a South African jail on Friday, in what is being hailed as a landmark ruling.
Chumlong Lemtongthai received the unusually harsh sentence of four decades in jail from a Johannesburg Magistrate Court, amid a record number of unnatural rhino deaths this year.
Lemtongthai had 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, the Kempton Park magistrate said he did not want his grandchildren to grow up without being able to see rhinos, according to EyeWitness News.
South Africa is home to around 80% of the world's rhinos. The population forms a linchpin of the country's famed "Big Five" biodiversity and of its lucrative safari industry. There are more than 18,000 white rhinos in the country and around 1,600 critically endangered black rhinos.
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.
Not fair game (Illustration: Dalit Shamam)
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
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 criticized 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."