“Rhino kingpin” Chumlong Lemthongthai was released from jail in South Africa on Tuesday, after serving just under six years of his sentence. (Photo taken from Edwin Wiek Facebook page)
A leading local conservationist has condemned the early release from prison in South Africa of “Rhino kingpin” Chumlong Lemthongthai, one of Asia’s most notorious wildlife smugglers.
Chumlong walked out of Kgosi Mamparu II (Pretoria Central Prison) in the South African capital on Tuesday, after just under six years behind bars.
Edwin Wiek, the founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, raised the alarm in a post on his Facebook page. “This guy is flying back into Thailand again from South Africa, remember him?” he wrote.
Chumlong, originally from Pathum Thani, was sentenced in November 2012 to 40 years behind bars after he confessed to ordering as many as 50 rhinos for hunting. He actively participated in the illegal killing of at least 26 of the animals while acting as a director of the notorious Xaysavang wildlife trafficking network operating out of Laos. His term was reduced to 30 years and then to 13 years on subsequent appeals.
The South African Department of Correction Services deemed Chumlong eligible for early release after serving half his sentence. He was escorted with new Thai travel documents to a Bangkok-bound aircraft on Sept 12, according to a report by Oxpeckers, an investigative environmental journalism website based in Africa.
It quoted forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan, who was instrumental in bringing Chumlong to book, as saying: “I doubt we will see him in Africa again. Unfortunately, people connected with him will be back, or are here already, and the slaughter will continue.”
Oxpeckers said that interested and affected parties were not given an opportunity to comment on, or object to Chumlong’s early release.
Chumlong confessed at his trial in November 2012 to ordering rhinos from traders and private owners for staged hunts on private land owned by another trader.
The syndicate then arranged for friends — and in some cases Thai prostitutes working in the country, according to Oxpeckers — to come in and do the actual killing. All of the “hunters” were supplied with legitimate permits obtained from provincial conservation authorities under false pretences, along with other documents needed to satisfy the requirements of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
Once the rhinos were shot, they would be butchered and the meat sold locally, while the horns were mounted as trophies, which was allowed under the regulations. But when the trophies were shipped to Asia the horns would be ground into powder and sold to buyers who prize them for supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. One hundred grammes of rhino horn can fetch as much as US$2,500 in some Southeast Asian countries.
Chumlong paid 65,000 South African rand a kilogramme for the horns and sold them for six times that amount, his trial heard.
Chumlong’s exact whereabouts are not currently known. Mr Wiek wrote on Facebook that if the trafficker does come back to Thailand or Southeast Asia, his activities must be closely watched.
“South Africa your justice system is a disgrace! Thailand keep your eyes open,” he wrote.