JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A rhino poacher in South Africa has been sentenced to 77 years in prison in one of the heaviest penalties aimed at curbing poachers who target rhinos for their horns, which fetch a high price on the illegal market in parts of Asia.
The sentencing of Mandla Chauke, a South African who was arrested in Kruger National Park in 2011, shows that South African courts are starting to realize the negative impact that poaching has not only on wildlife but also an economy heavily dependent on tourism, South Africa's national parks service said Wednesday.
"We hope that this will be a deterrent" to other poachers, parks spokesman Reynold Thakhuli said.
Earlier this month, a South African court sentenced two Mozambicans to 16 years in prison for killing a rhino and taking its horn last year in Kruger park, where many poachers cross from neighboring Mozambique. In late 2012, a South African court sentenced a Thai national to 40 years in prison for selling rhino horns.
Kruger park has lost 370 rhinos to poachers this year — well over half the total for South Africa — and 62 people have been arrested in connection with some of the cases, according to the parks service.
South Africa, which has 70 percent of the world's rhinos, lost a record 1,004 of the animals to poachers in 2013, according to government figures. Some Vietnamese and Chinese view rhino horn as a status symbol and a healing agent, despite a lack of evidence that it can cure. The horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in human fingernails.
Chauke, the poacher, and two accomplices shot three rhinos after illegally entering Kruger park, then got into a firefight with patrolling rangers in which one suspect was killed and another fled, according to police.
Chauke was convicted of murder, illegal hunting of rhinos, rhino horn theft, illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, as well as trespassing in a national park. He was sentenced Tuesday in the Nelspruit Magistrates Court, near Kruger in the northeastern part of South Africa.
Prosecutors had argued successfully that Chauke should be convicted for the murder of the accomplice who was killed by rangers, South Africa's SABC News said on its website. The judge rejected Chauke's argument that he was forced into the poaching excursion by his accomplices.
In a separate case, five suspected poachers appeared in court Tuesday after they were arrested in a game reserve in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province, south of Kruger park, according to police. The group was detained after a shootout with police in which one suspect was injured, and they face charges including attempted murder, the South African Press Association reported.