Johannesburg - A Thai national convicted of illegally trading in and exporting rhino horn should be punished harshly, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said on Tuesday.

Chumlong Lemthongthai pleaded guilty to all charges against him in the Kempton Park Magistrate's Court on Monday. In a statement read by his lawyer Terry Price, Lemthongthai said he realised he was acting unlawfully, contravening the Customs and Excise Act, and committing fraud.

He pleaded guilty to illegally obtaining hunting permits that led to the illegal exportation of nearly 26 rhino horns. He was arrested in 2011 and denied bail. He had been in custody since then. His co-accused Marnus Steyl, out on R100,000 bail, also appeared in court on Monday.

Molewa lauded the country's law enforcement agencies and the SA Revenue Services in fighting poaching, the department said in a statement. A total of 222 people had been arrested for rhino poaching and related activities since the beginning of 2012.

South Africa had lost 528 rhinos to poachers in 2012. The Kruger National Park remained the hardest hit, having lost a total of 320 rhino since the beginning of 2012.

The department said it had introduced revised norms and standards for the marking of rhino horn, and for the hunting of rhino for trophy purposes. This saw the introduction of stricter controls for the granting of trophy hunting permits in South Africa.

“Should there be a clear abuse or absolute collapse in any of these controls or of provincial permitting systems, then the minister of water and environmental affairs reserves the right to institute a moratorium on hunting of rhinoceros,” the department said.

The new norms and standards stipulated that hunting applicants had to submit proof of membership to a recognised hunting association. Members were only allowed to hunt one white rhino per year. The hunt had to be accompanied by an environmental management inspector, or an official of the issuing authority.

The official accompanying the hunt had to take DNA samples of the rhino horn and fit it with a microchip.

The minister warned that individuals found guilty of abusing the hunting permit system would be severely dealt with. - Sapa