WATER and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa on Wednesday welcomed the Phalaborwa Regional Court's decision to sentence three rhino poachers to a maximum of 25 years' imprisonment on various counts, while various non-governmental organisations said these were some of the toughest, if not the toughest, sentences handed down thus far for rhino poaching in South Africa.

The growth rate of the country's rhino population is still positive, despite a 34% increase in poaching from the 333 rhinos lost in 2010 to 448 killed last year. There is concern among some that South Africa could suffer a species decline by mid-year.

Ms Molewa said she believed the sentence would "send a strong message and hopefully act as a deterrent to poachers and would-be poachers. It is hoped that this sentence, coupled with anti-poaching activities that the government has embarked on with various law-enforcement agencies, will act as a deterrent to poachers."

The poachers, all Mozambican, were sentenced on Tuesday for illegally hunting rhinos in the Kruger National Park in 2010. The park, which has borne the brunt of the onslaught against rhinos, lost 252 of the pachyderms last year.

Tom Milliken, East and Southern Africa director of Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce - better known as TRAFFIC - said: "It's a very tough sentence and could be establishing a new record in South Africa. ... We have now moved into serious deterrence territory, at last. But the proof in the pudding will be if those South African game-industry white guys who are involved in rhino crime get similar sentences. Then we'll start to see things turned around."

One of these, suspected poaching kingpin Dawie Groenewald, and 10 others, arrested in 2010, are expected to appear in a Limpopo court in April to face almost 2000 charges, including money laundering, fraud, racketeering and the illegal trade of rhino horns.

Richard Emslie, a rhino expert at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said if racketeering was proved, it carried a maximum sentence of imprisonment for life.

In the Phalaborwa case, poachers Aselmo Baloyi, Jawaki Nkuna and Ismael Baloyi, were sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment (with an option of a R100000 fine) for illegally hunting a rhino, 15 years for the possession of a prohibited firearm (automatic rifle), eight years for the illegal possession of a hunting rifle and 15 years for the illegal possession of ammunition, said Department of Environmental Affairs spokesman Albi Modise. The last three sentences will run concurrently, meaning an effective 25 years.

"This must be one of the harshest sentences handed down yet. In general, conviction rates are quite low, but there is also a time lag in getting cases to court," said Dr Emslie.

He said the white rhino's market capitalisation had lost more than R500m since 2008, because of the effect of poaching. There was also the opportunity cost in the loss of an animal that could, presumably, have bred.

Ms Molewa said the government viewed the illegal killing of rhinos in a serious light and was determined to continue to prioritise its fight against such poaching, including efforts between South Africa and Mozambique to deal with cross-border law enforcement.

The court sentence comes at a time when the government has started stepping up measures to combat the tide of rhino poaching. The measures include the return of the South African National Defence Force to monitor 350km of the national border in the Kruger National Park and the deployment of conservation specialists at ports.

The Department of Environmental Affairs and South African National Parks are also beefing up patrols in the Kruger National Park, deploying an additional 150 rangers.

blaines@bdfm.co.za