One of three rhinos from the Inverdoorn Game Reserve and Safari Lodge, near Ceres, which had their horns poisoned in an attempt to stop poaching. Picture: Matthew Jordaan

Three rhino poachers have been sentenced to 25 years each by the Phalaborwa Regional Court, with SA National Parks saying this was an indication SA was using stricter methods to clamp down on the scourge.

The three Mozambicans were found guilty of illegally hunting rhinos in the Kruger National Park in July 2010.

SANParks chief executive David Mabunda said the sentence was harsher than in other similar cases.

“This is an indication that, as a country, we are taking more stringent measures in the fight against rhino poaching,” he said.

Aselmo Baloyi, Jawaki Nkuna and Ismael Baloyi were also found guilty of possessing an illegal firearm and ammunition.

They were caught with two freshly severed horns.

Mabunda said that last year 232 suspected poachers were arrested, including 26 who died in clashes with the authorities.

Searl Derman, owner of the Aquila Private Game Reserve outside Touws River and a key player in the Saving Private Rhino initiative, said: “We’ve been putting a lot of pressure on prosecutors to ask for harsher sentences, so we’re very pleased that it seems to be working. We have no doubt it sends out a very powerful message, and serves as a deterrent.”

His view was echoed by DA environment spokesman Gareth Morgan, who said the sentences “will act as a suitable deterrent... We need more of these kinds of sentences.”

The Cape Argus recently reported on the continuing rhino poaching onslaught in SA, with a record 448 killed last year, including 19 black rhinos, a critically endangered species of which fewer than 5 000 remain in the wild.

That is 34 percent more than in 2010, when 333 rhinos were killed in SA, and nearly four times the 122 lost in 2009.

SA law enforcement officials made 232 poaching-related arrests last year and 165 in 2010.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) noted that sentences imposed for rhino crimes had also increased in recent years, with poachers and horn smugglers receiving as long as 16 years in prison.

It said the recent upsurge in rhino poaching had been linked to increased demand for rhino horn in Asia, particularly Vietnam, where it is a luxury item, used as a post-partying cleanser and a purported cancer cure.

But the WWF said there were encouraging signs that rhino conservation work was reaping rewards.

Dr Jacques Flamand, head of the WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, said this week that SA’s populations of black and white rhinos were still growing, and their combined annual growth was about 7 percent. Just more than 2 percent of the rhino population was being lost through legal hunting and illegal poaching.

Flamand said more gains were possible with increased anti-poaching efforts being made.

SA citizens are urged to report illegal rhino activities to 0800 205 005. – Sapa and Daily News Reporters