JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A South African court on Friday sentenced a Thai national to 40 years in prison for his part in a syndicate that smuggled dozens of rhino horns out of the country, the stiffest sentence ever handed down for such a crime in South Africa.
Two government ministers praised the court for sending a strong message that rhino horn smuggling would not be tolerated. But critics questioned why Chumlong Lemtongthai was convicted while charges were dropped against a South African farmer accused of involvement in the crime.
South Africa, home to about 90% of Africa's rhinoceroses, has faced an alarming rise in poaching with 488 of the animals illegally killed this year by Oct. 30, compared with 13 in 2007. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, 2.4% of South Africa's rhinos were poached last year, with the rate increasing this year, posing a serious threat of extinction to rhinos.
The previous harshest sentence, 29 years, was handed down for poaching in August to two foreigners, Gearson Cosa, 35, and Ali Nkuna, 25, convicted of killing a rhino cow and her calf in the Kruger National Park, where around half the incidences of rhino poaching in South Africa occur.
The Laos-based syndicate, Xaysavang, exploited South Africa's laws that allow hunters to kill one rhino a year with a permit to illegally exported dozens of rhino horns. Lemtongthai confessed to organizing the bogus rhino hunts for Xaysavang to obtain horns to trade on the international black market and pleaded guilty to 59 charges of fraud and violations of customs, excise and environmental laws.
The syndicate recruited young Thai women, paid them $625 to take a "holiday" and obtained hunting permits for them. The young women didn't shoot the rhinos in the bogus hunts, but posed for pictures with the carcasses.
Disturbing video footage appearing on the website of South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper Friday showed hunters associated with the syndicate repeatedly shooting a rhino. The animal mewled and thrashed in agony, trying to get to its feet before dying.
Earlier this week, prosecutors dropped charges against South African farmer Marnus Steyl, two of his farm laborers, Patruis Matthuys and Obene Kobea, and a professional hunter and hunting safari operator, Harry Claasens. Claasens was granted immunity for turning state witness. Charges were also dropped against two foreign nationals, Punpitak Chunchom and an alleged middleman for the syndicate, Tool Sriton.
Steyl did not responded to calls and text messages Friday.
Julian Rademeyer, expert on rhino horn smuggling and author of a book on the subject, "Killing for Profit", said that the sentence was a major setback for the syndicate, allegedly led by a Laos national, but that the syndicate and others would likely find new means to smuggle horns.
"I think it's very significant that this is the stiffest sentence handed down to date in terms of our environmental legislation," Rademeyer said in a telephone interview. "I think it's a blow to the syndicate. But it's a bit like an octopus. You cut off one tentacle and another one grows."
Rademeyer said most of those convicted and sentenced for poaching in South Africa were middlemen or impoverished poachers used as cannon fodder by syndicates, with only one South African game farmer, Jacques Els, convicted of crimes related to poaching. Els was sentenced in March to eight years in prison and fined $120,000.
Rademeyer said the head of the syndicate in Laos was well-connected and well-protected, "so there's absolutely no way of cutting off the head of this syndicate. You arrest the people here and find someone else is sent in to do the job. You crack down on Vietnamese pseudo-hunters and find that Czech pseudo-hunters are coming in, paid by Asian syndicates."
The increase in poaching is associated with demand in Asia, particularly in Vietnam, where rhino horn consumed in the belief it does everything from ease hangovers to cure cancer, according to the anti-smuggling organization Traffic. But there's no scientific evidence that rhino horn -- made of keratin and similar to horses' hooves, cockatoo bills and turtle beaks -- has such curative properties.
The increase in South African poaching is tied to Asian crime syndicates, particularly in Vietnam, Traffic reported this year.
Handing down the sentence on Friday, magistrate Prince Manyathi said he did not want his children to grow up without the opportunity to see rhinos, local media reported.
"The guilty plea does not necessarily imply anything more than that the accused is realistic," Manyathi said.
The World Wildlife Fund praised South African law enforcement authorities for bringing the syndicate to justice but criticized prosecutors for withdrawing charges against the South Africans accused in the case.
"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," the WWF said in a statement.
National Prosecuting Authority spokeswoman Phindi Louw said the sentence sent a message that South Africa would do everything in its power to preserve the country's heritage.
Photo: A dehorned black rhinoceros followed by a calf at the Bona Bona Game Reserve in South Africa. Credit: Stephane de Sakutin / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.