Johannesburg - A Thai national convicted of illegal trade in rhino horn had his sentence reduced from 30 to 13 years by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) this week.
“The sentence of 30 years’ imprisonment is too severe and induces a sense of shock,” Judge Mahomed Navsa said in the judgment issued by the court on Thursday.
“It is disproportionate when compared to the minimum sentences statutorily prescribed for other serious offences.”
In his judgment, Navsa stipulated that Chumlong Lemthongthai had to pay a R1 million fine. If the fine was not paid, his sentence would be extended by five years.
Lemthongthai was arrested in 2011 after it was discovered that he obtained 26 permits from the environmental affairs department to conduct rhino trophy hunts.
This was a false pretence as the “the object was not to hunt rhino for trophy purposes but rather to engage unlawfully in trade in rhino horn”, said Navsa.
Lemthongthai then unlawfully used custom documents in an attempt to have the horns exported. He was sentenced to 40 years' jail by a regional magistrate. After taking the matter to the High Court in Pretoria, Lemthongthai had the sentence reduced to 30 years.
Lemthongthai subsequently approached the SCA, arguing a non-custodial sentence would be better suited in his case.
However, in the SCA judgment, Navsa reiterated that the court needed to uphold the value of conserving biodiversity for present and future generations.
Thus, if the case was dealt with too leniently, it would have “the opposite effect to what was intended”.
“A non-custodial sentence will send out the wrong message. Furthermore, illegal activities such as those engaged in by the appellant are fuel to the fire of the illicit international trade in rhino horn.”
Navsa said the way the permit system was manipulated was to be “decried”.
He criticised the government department that granted the permits for “lack of proper supervision of the authorised hunt”. He said it appeared that “at least some of the officials involved probably knew that the terms of the permit were not being met and that the stated purpose of the hunt was false”.
Nevertheless, he said the high court erred when it suggested that a rhino trading syndicate existed, as there was no evidence of this.
“Furthermore, equating the appellant with typical poachers was unwarranted.”
In court proceedings it emerged that Lemthongthai was originally sent to South Africa by a company that wanted him to enquire about purchasing lion bones.
However, Lemthongthai said when he arrived and saw advertisements for hunting the big five, he got the go-ahead from his country to get involved in rhino horn trade.