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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.
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.
Between October 2010 and May 2011, more than two dozen rhinos were killed on licensed "hunts" arranged by Chumlong. The horns were mounted as trophies to be sent abroad, according to copies of international air waybills and export certificates obtained by Reuters.
They were sent to Vixay Keosavang, the owner of a wildlife trading firm called Xaysavang Trading Export-Import in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, according to court documents obtained by Reuters.
In 2011, Chumlong signed a deal with the South African owner of a hunting reserve requesting horns from an additional 50 rhinos, with a street value of about $20 million, according to documents obtained by Reuters.
Increased demand meant poaching has hit record levels in South Africa where, by mid-October, 455 rhinos had been killed illegally. There were 448 in 2011.
Poaching increased dramatically from about 2007 as a growing affluent class in east and southeast Asia began spending more on rhino horn. It is believed by many to prevent and cure cancer.
According to some studies, rhino poaching has reached a level that is causing species decline.
"South African citizens are serious about this. This is the heritage of the people of South Africa. It is the heritage of the people of Africa. It is the heritage of people of the world," said Fundisile Mketeni, deputy director general of the environment ministry.
Editing by Andrew Roche