Two Vietnamese men were sentenced to prison in South Africa after rhino horns were found in their luggage at Johannesburg’s airport last year, the wildlife group Traffic said.
Duc Manh Chu was handed a 10-year sentence for trying to smuggle 12 rhino horns out of the country, with an additional two-year sentences for fraud.
Phi Hung Nguyeng was slapped with eight years for six horns tucked in his luggage, the group said.
“The stiff penalties handed out today have sent a strong message to rhino poachers and traffickers that their actions will be heavily punished,” said Tom Milliken, Traffic’s programme coordinator, in a statement.
Prosecutors could not be reached for comment.
Rhino poaching in South Africa has reached crisis levels, with over 200 animals killed in the first half of 2011, according to wildlife organisations.
By July 15, 218 rhinos had been poached in South Africa, one every 21 hours, an even faster pace than the rhino slaughter in 2010 that hit 333 animals, said Traffic.
The men were arrested after the horns were detected by airport security cameras at the country’s busiest airport on June 11, shortly before the World Cup kick-off.
Rhino horn powder is used as a fever-reducer in traditional Chinese medicine. Researchers say the recent surge in poaching is driven by the emergence in Vietnam of a belief that the horns can cure cancer.