PUBLIC Protector Thuli Madonsela has been asked to look into whether any North West officials should be investigated with regard to issuing fraudulent rhino hunting permits.

The possible probe of officials in the province’s economic development, environment, conservation and tourism department included permits issued to Thai prostitutes, hired by convicted rhino poaching middleman Chumlong Lemtongthai to pose as legal trophy-hunters, the Democratic Alliance (DA) said on Monday.

Lemtongthai was sentenced to 40 years in jail after pleading guilty to 52 counts related to rhino poaching. His case — cut short by his guilty plea, which obviated the state’s need to produce witnesses in court — has raised questions over the North West province’s handling of hunting licences.

DA water and environmental affairs spokesman Gareth Morgan said he had approached Ms Madonsela on Friday because "it is time that officials in the North West department of economic development, environment, conservation and tourism are also held to account for their role in awarding permits for pseudo hunts in 2010 and 2011. Government officials were at the start of the chain that resulted in illegally gotten horns getting into the hands of Lemtongthai."

Mr Morgan said the national Department of Environmental Affairs had already acknowledged the problems in the North West department, which had prompted a tightening up of the processes for awarding permits, and had resulted in an effective moratorium on the awarding of permits to nationals from Vietnam.

"But no investigation has been done into the officials in the North West to establish whether they knowingly issued permits for rhino hunts and whether they made any attempt to ensure hunts complied with permit conditions," he said.

Rhino horn reportedly fetches up to $60,000/kg in East Asia.

Mr Morgan also said he would this week ask Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, via the parliamentary questions process, for "full information on why charges were withdrawn against the co-accused, and whether the National Prosecuting Authority would reinstitute charges against any of the co-accused".

Lemtongthai’s co-accused were: game farmer Marnus Steyl and two of his farm workers, who allegedly supplied 26 rhino to Lemtongthai; Thai nationals Tool Sriton and Punpitak Chunchom; and professional hunter Harry Claassens, who turned state witness.

There was "good reason" the Kempton Park Magistrate’s Court imposed a 40-year sentence on Lemtongthai, and Mr Morgan said he hoped the sentence would be retained if appealed.

"Not only is the sentence deserved considering the assault on South Africa’s rhino population by ruthless poachers and illegal traders, but it sends a strong signal to other individuals involved in this illicit business.

"Justice Minister Jeff Radebe welcomed the sentence on Friday, but regrettably made no comment about the withdrawal of charges against of five of Lemtongthai’s co-accused. Lemtongthai pled guilty to 59 charges. With so many charges it is incomprehensible that prosecution was not pursued against other individuals," he said.