Mbombela - A former South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldier’s failure to convince a court that he trespassed in the Kruger National Park in order to look for muthi, will see him spending the next 26 years in prison.The former soldier, Leonard Bhuti Mashego, 56, from Pienaar Trust outside Mbombela, was sentenced - together with his co-accused, Michael Sithole, 53, a herbalist from Clau Clau Trust.The two heard their fate in the Nelspruit Regional Court late on Wednesday afternoon.They were arrested after a shootout involving rangers in the Bristol area of the Kruger Park on September 25, 2010.They faced 23 counts, among them killing and dehorning six rhinos, illegal activities in the game reserve, carrying out a restricted activity involving a threatened species, possession of an illegal firearm and ammunition, and failing to report a stolen firearm.Sithole’s defence, that he went into the park to search for his stray cows, also failed to save him from going to prison."On evidence from the rangers, there was a hole on the fence which you (Mashego) used as an entrance. No one among these witnesses tried to mislead the court or to implicate you. You said you were called from outside to come towards the fence and got arrested, which is a lie."Another witness also stated that you even got stuck on the hole on the fence. There is serious doubt you were digging for muthi in the park in the middle of the night. All evidence indicated that you were there to hunt for rhino and a hunting rifle was found next to you,”"said Magistrate André Geldenhuys.Geldenhuys said Mashego also tried misleading the court that he was in the park that night only to look for two of his cows that went missing."The court cannot accept your evidence that you lost two cows. It is questionable that you walked in the middle of the night, until you entered the park, only to look after cattle. On evidence by the state, a rhino horn was found in your possession. You even admitted to one of the witnesses after you were shot on your shoulder by rangers that you entered the park to hunt for rhino," said Geldenhuys.The magistrate said Mashego, who was on suspension without pay from the SANDF since his arrest in September 2010, failed to explain to the court about dates showing that he was absent from work."You were suspended from work because of this incident... There is no doubt that on September 22, you were together in the park. You entered without a permit and the modus operandi employed during the commission of the crime is same as of September 25," he said.'They fired their rifles multiple times'During mitigation before sentencing, Advocate Daniel Mabunda and Advocate Klaas Khoza asked the court to have mercy and hand their clients suspended sentences.However, State prosecutor Advocate Isabet Erwee said the sentences should fit to the crimes committed, as the number of rhino killed is on the increase despite efforts to save them."The operation was well planned. Firearms and ammunition were organised and Accused 2 wore his SANDF uniform and an army bag was used in carrying the horns," said Erwee.She said it was obvious the two were brutal in the manner they shot at the animals."They fired their rifles multiple times, with little regard of what happened to the animals. As a result of the continuous poaching, security and patrols have been increased in the parks in order to hear the shootings from a distance. It is a costly operation," said Erwee.Geldenhuys said, despite the fact that Mashego had a license for the .303 hunting rifle found in his possession, he also faced charges of illegal possession of a firearm relating to the one found on Sithole as they both acted together with common purpose.The magistrate acquitted them on counts 14 to 23 due to lack of evidence. He found them guilty on 13 charges and sentenced them each to 26 years in prison.