Johannesburg (AFP) - A South African court has jailed a rhino poacher for 77 years, one of the heaviest sentences handed out for the crime as poaching continues to escalate, an official said Wednesday.
South African national Mandla Chauke was arrested in the iconic Kruger National Park in 2011 after he killed three rhino calves. The vast park has seen the highest number of killings, with 370 slaughtered since January.
The South African National Parks (SANParks) hailed the sentence, saying it showed that "the courts are keen on stamping out the scourge of poaching."
"It's one of the harshest sentences, and we hope it will send out a strong message to poachers out there," said SANParks spokesman Reynold Thakhuli.
This month two Mozambicans were each jailed 16 years for killing and dehorning rhino.
They were also caught in Kruger Park. The vast area roughly the size of Israel forms a border with neighbouring Mozambique, a country where many poachers are recruited by international syndicates.
Rhino horns are prized as a status symbol in Asia, where they are falsely believed to possess medicinal properties to cure cancers and hangovers, despite being composed of the same material as fingernails.
A total of 558 rhino have been killed across South Africa since the beginning of the year, according to figures released this month.
Authorities have struggled to catch poachers who use increasingly sophisticated weaponry such as semi-automatic rifles or poisoned darts.
Though 62 people have been arrested since the start of the year, most of the prosecuted are lower-level gunmen, while kingpins evade detection.