JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African court has sentenced a rhino poacher to 77 years in jail, the heaviest penalty imposed by authorities desperate to halt a wave of poaching that is threatening the population of the endangered animals.
Mandla Chauke was convicted of shooting three rhinos, as well as murder and possession of illegal firearms, after he and two other poachers cut through wire fencing and infiltrated the flagship Kruger National Park in 2011, officials said.
The murder charge was added because one of Chauke's accomplices was killed in a shootout with park rangers. The third poacher escaped.
The Kruger, one of South Africa's leading tourist attractions and home to many of its 22,000 rhinos, has lost 370 of the animals to poachers this year. Many Kruger poachers are believed to come from neighboring Mozambique.
Parks authorities have stepped up armed patrols backed by helicopters and drones but said stiff sentencing was also needed to stamp out the scourge, fueled by medicinal demand for rhino horn in China, Thailand and Vietnam.
"Our wish is to see a significant increase in such convictions," South African National Parks chief executive Abe Sibiya said.
In traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horn was used to treat maladies from rheumatism to devil possession. Now, many newly rich Vietnamese consume it after a hard night of partying.
Conservation groups say it can fetch as much as $65,000 a kilogram, making it slightly more expensive than gold.
(Reporting by Mfuneko Toyana; Editing by Ed Cropley)