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.