JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Three men from Mozambique have been jailed for 25 years after being found guilty of hunting rhino in South Africa's famous Kruger National Park.
The Mozambicans were caught with two fresh rhino horns, an assault rifle, a hunting rifle and an ax inside the Kruger park, which borders Mozambique, in July 2010.
The Phalaborwa Regional Court in Limpopo province convicted Aselmo Baloyi, Jawaki Nkuna and Ismael Baloyi of poaching and the possession of illegal firearms.
David Mabunda, CEO of South African National Parks, said in a statement said the harsh sentence "is an indication that, as a country, we are taking more stringent measures in the fight against rhino poaching."
Mabunda said that last year, 232 suspected poachers were arrested, including 26 people who died in battles with park rangers and other enforcement officers.
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The past few years have seen a dramatic rise in rhino poaching, fueled by growing demand for rhinoceros horns in Vietnam and China where they are ground up and used in traditional medicine, although experts say the horns have the same medicinal value as fingernails.
A record 450 rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2011, more than half of them in Kruger, according to the national park service and wildlife conservationists. This was an increase over 333 rhinos slaughtered in 2010. In 2007, only 13 rhinos were lost to poachers.
Last month, Kruger park rangers found eight dehorned rhino carcasses in the park in just one day. Rangers investigating the dead rhinos came across a group of suspected poachers; two of the men, said to be from Mozambique, were killed in the ensuing shoot out.
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South Africa is stepping up its fight against rhino poachers. The national parks authority announced in January that it will be deploying an extra 150 rangers to protect the rhinos at Kruger park.
South African National Defense Force troops are already patrolling the park border.
Meanwhile, the country's environmental affairs department is considering re-erecting a 95-mile electric fence along Kruger park's border with Mozambique, were some of the poachers are thought to come from.
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