Hawks, Sars net trafficking 'kingpin'
Julian Rademeyer, Media24 Investigations
Johannesburg - An alleged kingpin in an international wildlife trafficking syndicate which has been linked to illegal trade in rhino horn and lion bones is expected to appear in court on Monday.
The arrest of 43-year-old Chumlong Lemtongthai, a Thai national, is the culmination of a year-long investigation led by the South African Revenue Service (Sars).
Media24 Investigations has established that forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan - the man who blew the lid on former police chief Jackie Selebi - provided crucial information about the syndicate to police and a wildlife NGO.
O’Sullivan, who had also been investigating the syndicate’s activities since last year, did not want to comment when contacted. “There is an investigation which has still to be completed,” he said.
Members of the Hawks swooped on a house in Edenvale, east of Johannesburg early on Saturday morning and arrested Lemtongthai just hours before he was due to fly out of the country. It was the second raid on the house in less than a month.
In a statement, Sars spokesperson Anton Fisher said: “The suspect allegedly obtained rhino hunting permits under false pretences in terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
“Such permits issued under Cites are specifically for trophy hunting and not for the illicit trade in rhino horn.
“It is alleged that once the animals were killed on supposed trophy hunting trips to South Africa, the rhino horns were sent abroad by the suspect who paid on average about R65 000 a kg for the rhino horn.”
At the house in a quiet, gated Edenvale suburb, police also found five Thai “hunters”. The men, who claimed not to be able to speak English, had recently returned from North West province where they are believed to have shot at least five rhino.
The group, accompanied by Lemtongthai, had arrived at OR Tambo International Airport on June 13. There, Sars agents and customs officials briefly detained Lemtongthai and confiscated his laptop, cellphone, an order form for 50 rhino horns and other documents.
After questioning, he was allowed to leave and the laptop and cellphone were returned to him a few days later.
The day of their arrival, Sars investigators and members of the Hawks also swooped on the Edenvale house where they arrested two Thai businessmen, Punpitak Chunchom, 44, and 31-year-old Phichet Thongpai, for the illegal possession of lion bones.
Both pleaded guilty last week in the Germiston Regional Court and admitted not having the requisite permit to possess the lion teeth and claws found in a rolled up package in one of their bags.
They were fined R10 000. A further fine of R100 000 or five years imprisonment was wholly suspended for five years.
Chunchom is believed to be a director of the Xaysavang Trading Export-Import Company, which is based in Laos, a tiny country of 6.8 million, which is bordered by China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia.
The company has gained notoriety in wildlife circles for their involvement in trading animals and animal products.
In a statement, Thongpai claimed to be a photographer who had been employed in South Africa to photograph lion bones that were being offered for sale. The pictures would be e-mailed back to the head office in Laos where a decision would be taken on whether to buy the lion bones or not.
Thongpai said the company mainly dealt in lion bones. Both men claimed they were paid R5 000 a month.
Informed sources say Chunchom has been linked to various rhino hunts. In September 2008, he and four other suspects were arrested in Middelburg in Mpumalanga after they offered an undercover policeman $60 000 for three rhino horns.
The case against Chunchom and two other suspects was later withdrawn.
Lemtongthai is apparently a key figure in Xaysavang’s operations. According to Fisher, he will stand trial on charges involving “violations of the Customs and Excise Act, specifically section 80 (1) which deals with the improper use of permits in respect of goods”.
Xaysavang’s tentacles are believed to extend as far afield as China, Thailand, Vietnam and parts of Africa.
In July 2009, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and customs officers discovered a shipment of 260kg elephant ivory and 18kg rhino horn at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The shipment was registered in the name of the Xaysavang Trading Export-Import Company and was destined for Laos.
The cargo had originated in Mozambique, but KWS director Julius Kipng’etich remarked at the time: “Since Mozambique has no rhinos and elephants we suspect the trophies were illegally poached from neighbouring countries and transported to Maputo by road.”
A Vietnamese journalist traced the company’s address to a hotel in the Bolikhmxay province in central Laos. In an interview with the reporter, the company’s owner, Vixay Keosavang said the company owned a 20ha farm where long-tailed macaques were bred for export to China.
Xaysavang primarily sells the monkeys to a Chinese laboratory for use in experiments.
Yolan Friedmann, CEO of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, said the arrest of Lemtongthai was significant in that “it means we are starting to get into the syndicates”.
“This is not the end of poaching because there are other syndicates we know of, but now we are seeing role players in syndicates being caught. Up until recently, most arrests were at the level of poachers.
“People keep saying, 'shoot poachers in the Kruger National Park', but that won't make a difference. What is crucial is to make inroads into syndicates.”