By Jon Herskovitz
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African court gave a Thai man a record 40-year jail sentence on Friday for an elaborate fraud to ship poached rhinoceros horns to Asia after the animals were killed in fake "hunts".
Chumlong Lemtongthai took advantage of the fact it is legal for foreigners to hunt rhinos in South Africa and ship horns overseas as personal trophies.
He paid Thai prostitutes about $800 dollars each to go to game farms, take a few shots with small-calibre rifles and then pose next to rhinos killed by someone else, according to affidavits presented to the court and seen by Reuters.
Judge Prince Manyathi said Chumlong fraudulently obtained hunting permits to kill 26 rhinos and then shipped most of the horns to Asia for "selfish financial gain".
"The shooting was not for trophy hunting. It was for horn trading," Manyathi said, adding rhinos were a symbol of the country and continent.
"We cannot allow anybody to take our pride away."
South Africa is home to almost all of Africa's rhinos and has been in an escalating arms race with poachers who smuggle horns to China, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere. Its value there as a medicine is about $65,000 a kilogram, making it more expensive than gold.
Chumlong, 44 and dressed in a brown jacket and jeans, stood motionless as the judge handed down the sentence. He did not make any statement. His lawyers said they planned an appeal.
Chumlong pleaded guilty on Wednesday to more than 50 counts of illegal exports and violating environmental protection laws.
POACHING GROWING FAST
The environment ministry said the sentence was the longest ever handed out for rhino poaching. It was also harsher than the minimum term for murder. Continued...