JOHANNESBURG - Conservationists expressed shock on Monday after a Thai kingpin of the illegal rhino horn trade was released from jail after serving just six years of his 40-year sentence.
Chumlong Lemtongthai was freed on parole in Pretoria last week and immediately flew back to Bangkok, government officials told AFP.
Lemtongthai pleaded guilty in 2012 to running bogus rhino hunts as a cover to source horns to sell on the lucrative black market.
His long sentence had been hailed by campaigners as a breakthrough in the criminal prosecution of traffickers.
But his release triggered accusations that South African authorities were failing to act to stop the slaughter.
"His early release is an utter disgrace. It makes a complete mockery of the seriousness of the crimes perpetrated," Audrey Delsink, director the Humane Society International animal charity, told AFP.
"It sends a strong message that high-level poachers with known links to wildlife trafficking networks are treated with leniency.
"Lemtongthai was personally involved in the illegal slaughtering of 26 rhinos, and ordering the deaths of at least 50 animals."
The World Wildlife Fund said authorities must push for "successful prosecutions and appropriate sentencing of those responsible".