South African police detain Thai man over poaching links
South African officials on Friday detained a Thai man they believe is linked to a poaching ring accused of hiring prostitutes to smuggle rhino horns out of the country, a spokesman said.
The South African Revenue Service said police and customs officials believe the man, Punpitak Chunchom, is part of a poaching syndicate they say is run by Thai national Chumlong Lemtongthai, who is charged with organising rhino poaching expeditions masked as legal trophy hunts.
"The suspect apprehended this morning is suspected to be an associate of the one who is in custody, Chumlong, who is standing trial. They, we believe, are two very central figures in an international rhino poaching syndicate," revenue service spokesman Adrian Lackay told AFP.
Punpitak, who has a previous conviction in South Africa for smuggling lion bones and other illegal animal products, was trying to enter the country on a fake passport, Lackay said.
The revenue authority says Chumlong, who has twice been denied bail and is awaiting trial in Johannesburg, would obtain trophy hunting permits then buy the rhinos' horns from the hunters for an average 65,000 rand ($8,260, 5,980 euros) per kilogramme and send them overseas.
Local media report that Chumlong would pay friends, strippers and prostitutes to pose as hunters and export the horns under trophy permits, a limited number of which are issued each year.
Wildlife watchdogs say a rhino horn currently fetches up to half a million dollars on the black market, driven by booming demand in Asia, where it is used in medicinal treatments.
Newspaper reports said Chumlong made more than $8.9 million in profit on 40 rhino horns.
© 2011 AFP