Johannesburg - Justice Minister Jeff Radebe has welcomed the 40-year-sentence imposed on a Thai man for selling rhino horns, his spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga said on Friday.
“Minister Jeff Radebe congratulates the National Prosecuting Authority and commends (the) magistrate for imposing an appropriate sentence that fits the crime,” he said in a text message.
“Rhino poaching and smuggling threatens the government's efforts in preserving our environment and economic stability of the country.”
Chumlong Lemtongthai pleaded guilty in the Kempton Park Magistrate's Court to paying prostitutes to pose as hunters so he could harvest rhino horns, which were then sold on Asia's traditional medicine market.
The group is thought to have netted around 26 rhino horns.
In handing down sentence, the magistrate said he did not want his grandchildren to grow up without being able to see rhinos, reported Eyewitness News.
More than 500 rhinos have been killed in South Africa in 2012.
The SA Revenue Service (Sars) also welcomed the sentence.
It said Lemtongthai was arrested in 2010 and was charged, with five other people, with various counts of fraud, customs and excise violations, and transgressions of environmental legislation.
Lemtongthai pleaded guilty to 59 charges on Monday.
“Today's (Friday's) sentence was the successful outcome of comprehensive investigative work and co-operation between various state law enforcement agencies in the country...” Sars said in a statement.
However, the conviction of one individual was not sufficient a deterrent against rhino poaching, it said.
“Law enforcement and state agencies in the country have to do a lot more and work together far more effectively to combat fraud, corruption, and abuse of the entire system that includes the movement of passengers into and out of South Africa, the issuing of hunting permits and the illicit transfer of money, and the enforcement of environmental and other laws.”
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-SA) said this was the harshest sentence meted out for a wildlife crime in the country.
It applauded the agencies involved in the successful prosecution.
“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,” said Dr Jo Shaw, WWF-SA rhino co-ordinator.
“These higher-level arrests and convictions are critical to disrupting the illegal trade chains used to move rhino horns into illicit markets in Asia.”
The organisation said it was concerning that charges against Lemtongthai's co-accused (three South Africans and two Asians) had been withdrawn without explanation.
“Sadly, this does not send a similarly strong message regarding South Africa's attitude to the ongoing involvement of its own citizens in rhino crimes,” said Shaw. - Sapa