Late on July 3rd, the weapons and body parts of three alleged would-be rhino poachers were found in Sibuya, a South African game reserve. It appears that they were eaten by a pride of lions, according to local reports.
Reportedly, dogs in an anti-poaching unit reacted to something unusual on an early-morning patrol on Monday, but it wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that a skull was seen in the lions’ camp. That’s when reserve owner Nick Fox went out with an anti-poaching unit to investigate.
There, they saw supplies—bags, guns, and bread—scattered everywhere. “Human remains were also clearly visible,” Fox told South African news outlet HeraldLIVE. It was too dark on Tuesday evening to safely investigate further, so on Wednesday the unit returned and tranquilized the lions so that they could comb the scene. (Read about the women fighting poaching in South Africa.)
Fox and others found that only a skull and a few pieces of pelvic bone remained of the people who were apparently mauled. They believe that there were three men because they found three pairs of shoes and gloves. The gear gathered from around the lions’ camp provides evidence of illegal intent, Fox’s team said.
"They were armed with, amongst other things, a high-powered rifle with a silencer, an axe, wire cutters, and had food supplies for a number of days—all the hallmarks of a gang intent on killing rhino and removing their horns," Fox told local outlet RNEWS. Helicopters have been called in to scan the thick bush for survivors who may be hiding. (Also see: “Why Did Lion Kill Tourist in South Africa?”)
Poachers killed this black rhinocerous for its horn with high-caliber bullets at a water hole in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. They entered the park illegally, likely from a nearby village, and are thought to have used a silenced hunting rifle. Black rhinos number only about 5,000 today.
Rhino poaching is an ongoing crisis in South Africa, where 80 percent of the rhino population lives. While only 13 rhinos were illegally killed in 2007, over one thousand were killed in 2017.
Just last week, local news reported that a white rhino named Bella was shot and killed so poachers could take her one-inch stump of horn, just one week after she and two other rhinos were dehorned for their protection. Bella and her calf lived in Kragga Kamma game park, only a few hours’ drive west of Sibuya.
In this case, however, nature dominated. It’s not surprising that the lions would see three humans, on foot and in thick bush, as a meal. “Almost any organism around lions might be a potential prey item, and for people to think that they are an exception is folly," Luke Dollar, program director for National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative, told National Geographic in 2015.
The victims of the lion attack have not yet been identified, but police spokesperson Captain Mali Govender says that the rifle recovered from the park “will be sent to the ballistics laboratory to establish if it has been used in any other poaching or crimes.”