South African court sentences rhino horn smuggler to 40 years

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A South African court on Friday sentenced a Thai national to 40 years in prison for his part in a syndicate that smuggled dozens of rhino horns out of the country, the stiffest sentence ever handed down for such a crime in South Africa.

Two government ministers praised the court for sending a strong message that rhino horn smuggling would not be tolerated. But critics questioned why Chumlong Lemtongthai was convicted while charges were dropped against a South African farmer accused of involvement in the crime.

South Africa, home to about 90% of Africa's rhinoceroses, has faced an alarming rise in poaching with 488 of the animals illegally killed this year by Oct. 30, compared with 13 in 2007. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, 2.4% of South Africa's rhinos were poached last year, with the rate increasing this year, posing a serious threat of extinction to rhinos.

The previous harshest sentence, 29 years, was handed down for poaching in August to two foreigners, Gearson Cosa, 35, and Ali Nkuna, 25, convicted of killing a rhino cow and her calf in the Kruger National Park, where around half the incidences of rhino poaching in South Africa occur.

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Live bullfights return to Spanish public TV after six years

Spanish public television is set to show its first live bullfight in six years, after the conservative prime minister, a staunch fan, reversed a ban on live broadcasts of the blood sport
MADRID -- Spanish public television is set to show its first live bullfight in six years Wednesday evening, after the conservative prime minister, a staunch fan, reversed a ban on live broadcasts of the blood sport.

Spain's bullfighting industry has been hurt by the global economic turmoil and a decrease in popularity among the country's youth. In the northeast region of Catalonia, a ban on the practice went into effect earlier this year. Animal rights groups consider the sport cruel.

Six years ago, the then-socialist government in Madrid banned bullfighting from being shown live on public television, arguing that it was inappropriate to broadcast the killing of animals during a time slot, at 6 p.m., when many children were watching.

But current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said he considers bullfighting an art form deeply rooted in Spanish history. After winning elections late last year, Rajoy's conservative Popular Party appointed a new, like-minded management team for Spain's public broadcaster, which decided to resume the airing of live bullfights.

Wednesday night's fight, part of a festival in the northern city of Valladolid, is to be the first in a series of prime-time bullfights to be aired in the coming months. It features three matadors -- including one of Spain's most famous, Julian Lopez, better known "El Juli" -- up against six half-ton bulls.

Both Lopez and the bulls' breeder volunteered to waive payments they would normally receive for broadcast rights in order to encourage the cash-strapped public television service to reverse the ban.

The return of bullfighting to Spanish public TV is a victory for its advocates, who recently convinced the government to reclassify the practice as an art form, protected by the Ministry of Culture, rather than as a sport. When the ban was in place, fans were still able to watch fights on cable TV or regional channels.

Bullfighting was banned in Spain's Canary Islands in 1991, but Catalonia is the only Spanish mainland region where the practice is illegal. The Catalan branch of Spain's public broadcaster has reportedly asked that it be allowed to block the incoming signal from the central broadcaster when the evening bullfight begins.


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Photo: After a six-year ban, Spanish public TV will resume airing live bullfights such as this one, which took place in Pamplona in July. Credit: Alvaro Barrientos / Associated Press

Legal ivory? Idea floated as elephant poaching hits new highs


As elephant poaching and ivory smuggling have increased across Africa, a new proposal to allow the sale of ivory from elephants that die naturally or are killed for other reasons has infuriated environmentalists.

The idea comes out of a report commissioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is meeting this week in Geneva. It envisions selling ivory through a central organization such as the De Beers diamond conglomerate, funded through a tax on ivory sales.

“It would not be the aim of the [organization] to promote the killing of elephants for trade in ivory,” the report says. “Elephant populations will inevitably produce ivory through natural mortality” as well as through culling for ecological reasons or because they pose a threat.

Though shooting elephants for ivory has been banned for decades, record hauls of ivory -– more than 53,000 pounds -- were seized last year. Poaching is at the highest level since it was first tracked,  according to a separate report to the international convention.

Much of the ivory is believed to end up in China, where it appears to be funneled into the country's legal trade in ivory. China is experiencing a booming demand from newly affluent citizens. Existing regulations are spottily enforced.

The surge in elephant poaching shows something needs to change, according to the report on ivory sales. “It is clear that current measures are not containing the present upsurge in the illegal trade in ivory,” it says.

Though the report says the proposed sale of ivory is merely a starting point for discussions, it has caused a firestorm. Environmentalists argue ivory sales would simply open the door to more illegal poaching. In the past, legal sales of stockpiled ivory have done nothing to satisfy the demand or stabilize ivory prices, the Environmental Investigation Agency in London said.

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Lennox the dog is put to death in Northern Ireland


LONDON — After months on death row and a transatlantic campaign howling for his release, time has run out for Lennox the dog. He has been put to sleep, officials in Northern Ireland announced Wednesday.

In a terse statement, the Belfast City Council said it has humanely destroyed “one of the most unpredictable and dangerous dogs” that its appointed expert had ever come across. The council expressed regret for the court-ordered euthanasia, which it carried out for reasons of public safety despite “a sustained campaign of abuse” against city officials, including threats of harm and death.

The plight of Lennox, a pit bull terrier-type mutt, had inspired a viral social-media campaign in both Britain and the U.S., where animal-rights activists and others demanded that the dog be returned to its owner. Thousands of people signed an online petition for a stay of execution; First Minister Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s top leader, and Lennox Lewis, the boxing champion who shares an obvious connection to the dog, joined the chorus urging mercy.

In its odyssey through Northern Ireland’s legal system, Lennox’s case almost resembled that of a human offender convicted of a capital crime (except that the death penalty — for two-legged criminals, at any rate — is outlawed in Britain).

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Activists demand investigation as sea turtles crushed in Trinidad


Infuriated environmentalists are demanding an investigation into how work crews in Trinidad ended up crushing turtle hatchlings and eggs while trying to reroute a river to protect turtle nests and a nearby hotel.

The Grande Riviere Beach is known as one of the most important nesting spots for the leatherback, the largest turtle in the world, woefully endangered by egg harvesters, pollution and accidental catches at sea. Tourists flock to the small town on the northern coast of Trinidad to see the turtles come ashore.

Turtle protection groups say they had long pushed for local officials to divert the nearby river to avoid washing away precious nesting grounds, but that the job was done so late and so sloppily that bulldozers ended up destroying hatchlings they were supposed to protect.

Conservationists told the Trinidad Express newspaper and the Associated Press that thousands of turtles had been killed by the botched job.

Those running the bulldozers “are not to blame, they are not trained to deal with turtles,” the Papa Bois Conservation group wrote on Facebook. Instead, the environmentalists slammed “those ‘higher up,’ not one of whom was on site to make sure the works were done with as little damage as possible.”

Trinidad environmental management officials countered that only a few hundred hatchlings were lost and argued that diverting the Grande Riviere River would still “have some positive impact” on the leatherback turtles by preventing more shore erosion.

In a statement, the Environmental Management Authority of Trinidad and Tobago complained that the situation had been sensationalized in the media.

But its chief executive, Joth Singh, later told the Express that "things were not done in the best way.” Bulldozer operators did not follow instructions during the weekend work, Singh told the newspaper.

One environmental activist painted a disturbing picture of vultures and stray dogs rushing onto the beach to eat the unearthed and injured hatchlings. “They had a very good meal. I was near tears,” Sherwin Reyz, a member of the Grande Riviere Environmental Organization, told the Associated Press.


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Photo: A bulldozer operates next to destroyed leatherback turtle eggs and hatchlings on the banks of the Grande Riviere Beach in Trinidad. Credit: Associated Press / Papa Bois Conservation / Marc de Verteuil

Taiwan photographer records shelter dogs' last moments [Photos]

Taiwan shelter dogs' pictures by Tou Chih-kang

In Taiwan, one man is giving animals destined to be put to death a last moment of dignity -- through the lens of a camera.

Photographer Tou Chih-kang, known professionally as Tou Yun-fei, has taken pictures of hundreds of dogs in their last moments at the Taoyuan Animal Shelter, just before veterinarians put them down, the Associated Press reports. His photos draw attention to the plight of strays, 80,000 of which are reportedly euthanized annually in Taiwan.

PHOTOS: A dog's last moments

“I believe something should not be told but should be felt,” Tou told the Associated Press. “And I hope these images will arouse the viewers to contemplate and feel for these unfortunate lives, and understand the inhumanity we the society are putting them through.”

See more of his striking images and behind-the-scenes shots in our photo gallery. You can also view some of his photos on this photo-sharing website.


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Photo: Taiwanese photographer Tou Chih-kang hangs his portraits of the final moments in the lives of shelter dogs for an exhibition in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan. Credit: Wally Santana / Associated Press

Russian leader Vladimir Putin's tiger tale challenged

Putin tiger

Every day on WorldNow we choose an amazing photo from around the world. Today our eye was drawn to a shot of Vladimir Putin with a tiger he reportedly shot with a tranquilizer gun, allowing it to be tracked to help Russian preservationists save the big cats.

It's an old photo, but it's getting a lot of attention today -- and not for reasons that Putin will like.

A Russian environmentalist says photos and video of the reported shooting reveal that it's possible that  Putin shot a docile animal from a zoo, not a wild tiger, the Associated Press reported Friday.

Dmitry Molodtsov says there's a marked difference between the tiger that Putin was shown shooting in 2008 and the one shown later on his website as having been released back into the wild.

Molodtsov said the telltale sign was the stripes. He compared video of Putin shooting a tiger with photos that purported to show him with the same tranquilized tiger, pointing out differences in its fur.

Here's a photo from his website,, pointing out differences in the tiger markings:


Molodtsov also compared the image with another photo of a Khabarovsk Zoo tiger, saying there was a 99.9% probability it was the same tiger.

"It had nothing to do with environmental protection and the preservation of tigers," Molodtsov wrote in Russian on his website. "The purpose was only to increase Putin's ratings."

Natalya Remennikova, who works at the government institute in charge of the tiger preservation program, told the Associated Press that the claim was false, possibly calculated to smear Putin. Putin has served as prime minister for four years and recently won the presidency again -- his inauguration is scheduled in May -- in an election that generated accusations of fraud. Putin previously served two terms as president.

He  has been accused of staging photos before: In October, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted that ancient Greek urns had been planted in shallow water for him to find while scuba diving, the Guardian reported.


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Photo: Vladimir Putin, left, looks at a tranquilized tiger as researchers put a collar with a satellite tracker on the animal in Russia's Far East in 2008. Credit: Alexei Druzhinin / RIA Novosti

Two-headed tortoise gets her close-up in Kiev

A two-headed turtle Testudo horsfieldi at the National Museum of Natural History in Kiev, Ukraine

Every day on World Now we choose an amazing photo from around the world. Today we did a double take at this shot of a two-headed tortoise on display in Ukraine.

The animal also has two hearts, six legs and a single intestine. "Strictly speaking it isn't a tortoise with two heads, but rather two conjoined tortoises," zoologist Yuri Yuravliov told the Agence France-Presse.

The unusual creature was born in captivity. “Animals with this type of pathology are only rarely born and don’t survive in natural conditions,” Yuravliov said.

Dmitry Tkachev, who organized the Kiev exhibition where the tortoise is on display, told Russian state media that the two heads cannot see each other.

“Each has its own character, so they often want to crawl in different directions,” he explained to Ria Novosti, the Russian international news agency.

It isn't the only reptile with two heads out there: A Geneva museum has exhibited a two-headed tortoise named Janus after the Roman god with two faces.


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Photo: A man displays a two-headed Testudo horsfieldi tortoise at the National Museum of Natural History in Kiev, Ukraine, on Monday. Credit: Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press


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