Chumlong Lemtongthai attends a hearing at Kempton Park Magistrate's Court
Chumlong Lemtongthai was sentenced to 40 years for his part in a rhino poaching syndicate in South Africa (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)

A Thai man has been sentenced to 40 years in prison for rhino poaching in South Africa, the harshest sentence ever handed out for a wildlife crime in the country.

Chumlong Lemtongthai was jailed for his involvement in a syndicate which used white rhino trophy hunts in South Africa as a cover-up to trade horns to the Asian black markets.

Lemtongthai pleaded guilty to the charges against him at Kemton Park Magistrate's Court in Johannesburg. He said sorry for his actions in a statement, saying: "I humbly apologise to the court and to the people of South Africa for my role in this matter.

"I appreciate that the emotions of all animal lovers in South Africa are running very high and that I was part of the problem."

In a practice known as pseudo-hunting, Lemtonghai told the court that the trophy hunts, which are legal in South Africa, were in fact a front for exporting rhino horns for commercial trade, which are not.

The syndicate would enlist Thai prostitutes to pose as hunters and take part in white rhino trophy hunts on game farms in the North West Province, before shipping them to Asia.

Dr Jo Shaw, rhino co-ordinator for WWF South Africa, said: "It is so important that all those involved in rhino crimes receive sentences which match the severity of their actions to form an effective deterrent to others

"These higher-level arrests and convictions are critical to disrupting the illegal trade chains used to move rhino horns into illicit markets in Asia."

The environment organisation said: "WWF South Africa applauds the efforts of the South African Revenue Services and other law enforcement agencies for the successful arrest, prosecution and sentencing of the highest-ranking rhino syndicate member to be brought to book in South Africa."

Following the case, the South African government updated legislation to stop loopholes in the law being exploited. This included a ban on rhino hunting by Vietnamese nationals.

Save the Rhino recently reported that a record number of rhinos have been killed illegally this year in South Africa.

Last year, 448 rhinos were killed in total. It is estimated that there are around 20,000 rhinos in South Africa.

The charity said: "The increase in rhino poaching is mainly attributed to the growing demand for rhino horn from wealthy consumers in Asia, in particular Vietnam and China. Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, with demand recently increasing due to unfounded rumours that rhino horn can cure cancer.

"Other users have been identified who believe that rhino horn has 'detoxification' properties following the consumption of excessive food or alcohol."

While the WWF welcomed the sentencing of Lemtongthai, it also said it was concerned that the charges against the three other people involved in the syndicate were withdrawn "without explanation".

"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," it said.

"This case and recent rhino poaching incidents in the North West Province highlight the ways in which criminal elements are abusing the permit system in their quest for rhino horn.

"There remains an urgent need for the South African government to implement a national electronic permit system to centralise and better monitor this information. WWF also calls for greater collaboration between South Africa and Asia in monitoring rhino horn trophy exports to prevent them being drawn into illegal trade."