Pretoria - It is the harshest sentence handed down in South Africa for a wildlife crime, and a clear message to Asian countries not to mess with the nation’s rhino.
Chumlong Lemtongthai was on Friday given a 40-year sentence in the Kempton Park Magistrate’s Court for illegally exporting rhino horn, jail time usually associated with capital crimes like murder and rape.
But on Friday morning magistrate Prince Manyathi said in his judgment that he wanted to pass a sentence that was a “shout to the community and the Asian bloc that these actions will not be tolerated” in South Africa.
The magistrate went on to refer to rhino as the pride of Africa: “I don’t want a situation where my grandchildren will only see a rhino in a newspaper.
“We have to protect our flora and fauna.”
As animal rights activists smiled and hugged in response to the sentence they never thought would be handed down, Lemtongthai hurriedly left the dock to the holding cells below.
For his last two appearances, he has stood in the dock alone after his plea agreement exonerated his five co-accused.
Charges against them were withdrawn after he claimed that they were unaware they were taking part in a crime.
But at least one of his co-accused, landowner Marnus Steyl, could find himself back in the dock after Sars spokesman Adrian Lackay confirmed they were investigating him.
Activist Miranda Jordan said several animal rights organisations approached an advocate to assist them in reinstating charges against Steyl.
They want the case heard in the North West, the province where the rhino were shot.
This comes with the emergence of a video showing one of Lemtongthai’s illegal hunts.
The video was shot from a camera placed on Steyl’s head, and shows a rhino being shot five times. According to South African law, the person whose name is on the hunting permit is supposed to fire the first shot.
If the person is in danger, or the animal is injured, a professional hunter can then shoot the animal. The first shot in the video appears to be fired by Steyl, at an animal that is clearly not endangering anyone.
A shocked Terry Price, Lemtongthai’s advocate said after the sentencing that his client would appeal.
“This is shocking, this sentence is double life in prison,” the advocate said.
But Lackay said Sars welcomed the sentence.
“Today’s sentence was the successful outcome of comprehensive investigative work and co-operation between various state law enforcement agencies in the country,” he said.
In a text message, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe congratulated the NPA and commended Manyathi for imposing an “appropriate sentence”.
WWF-SA on Friday called the sentencing the harshest given for a wildlife crime in the country to date.
“It is so important that all those involved in rhino crimes receive sentences which match the severity of their actions to form an effective deterrent to others,” the organisation’s rhino co-ordinator, Dr Jo Shaw, said.
“These higher-level arrests and convictions are critical to disrupting the illegal trade chains used to move rhino horns into illicit markets in Asia.”
Earlier this week, Lemtongthai outlined in his plea agreement statement how he had perpetrated the rhino horn smuggling operation. He had forged hunting permits, creating a false hunting history for the applicant .
These bogus hunters had included alleged Thai prostitutes who were paid R5 000 to go on the hunts and pose next to the dead rhino. A total of 26 sets of rhino horn were acquired through this criminal operation.
Price had argued in mitigation of sentence that his client showed remorse, and pleaded with the magistrate to show “ubuntu”.
On Friday Manyathi said Lemtongthai showed no remorse, and could have confessed his crimes to the authorities, could have left the country, or told his boss in Thailand that he was withdrawing from the operation.
“But the accused did not exercise any of these options,” the magistrate said. “These were not the actions of a remorseful person.”
Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa welcomed the sentence.
Molewa said she hoped Lemtongthai’s conviction would send a stern message to other rhino poachers and dealers. “The rhino is part of our pride as a nation and anyone who steals it or part of it, steals our pride, and the laws of our country should deal with such individuals,” said Molewa.
The SA National Parks (SANParks) also welcomed the sentence.
SANParks chief executive officer, David Mabunda, said it showed the courts were prepared to hand out tough punishment to those who interfered with the country’s heritage.
Mabunda said it was a happy day for the conservation fraternity.
“We applaud the sentencing… The court has handed out justice on behalf of the South African people,” he said.
According to SANParks, a total of 528 rhino have been killed in South Africa this year. - Pretoria News Weekend