Eastern Province, South Africa – In what can only be described as an ironic twist of fate, a group of poachers attempting to illegally slaughter a herd of rhinos within the Sibuya Game Reserve was attacked and eaten by a pride of lions.
A guide at the South African game reserve on Tuesday evening spotted what he believed to be human remains near a group of lions but it was getting too dark to search.
The next day, after tranquilizing six lions in the pride, the reserve’s anti-poaching unit, accompanied by police and other wildlife specialists, searched the area and found a head and numerous other limbs and body parts.
"Investigators and specialists combed the scene and managed to retrieve remains, which were taken by the Department of Health to conduct forensic testing. Investigation continues and at this stage, we are unable to speculate as to how the remains ended up at the scene," South African Police Service Capt. Mali Govender said in a statement.
While police were “unable to speculate,” reserve owner Nick Fox, 60, unabashedly stated, “We found enough body parts and three pairs of empty shoes, which suggest to us that the lions ate at least three of them but it is thick bush and there could be more."
Additionally, CNN reported that authorities also found a high-powered rifle with a silencer, wire cutters and an ax that Fox said would have been used to remove a poached rhino's horns, which can fetch hefty sums on the black market. Rhinos are endangered and are prized for their horns, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
"We're almost 100% sure this is connected to rhino poaching," Fox said.
“They came heavily armed with hunting rifles and axes which we have recovered and enough food to last them for several days so we suspect they were after all of our rhinos here. They were clearly intent on killing rhinos and cutting off their horns,” he said.
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“But the lions are our watchers and guardians and they picked the wrong pride and became a meal” Fox added. “Whilst we are saddened at any loss of life, the poachers came here to kill our animals and this sends out a very clear message to any other poachers that you will not always be the winner."
The Mirror reported that thus far this year, nine rhinos—all of which were shot with a high-caliber hunting rifle—have been killed by poachers on Eastern Cape reserves.
Police captain Mali Govender said, “We do not know identities but firearms have been taken by the police and will be sent to the ballistics laboratory to see if they have been used in poaching before."
Sibuya Game Reserve reportedly lost three rhinos in 2016 to poachers after they snuck into the game reserve and killed them for their horns.
Fox told CNN that he believes the poachers snuck onto the reserve sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning, noting that an anti-poaching dog signaled during a patrol around 4:30 a.m. but her handler did not suspect anything amiss as lions are often active at night and believed them to be the cause of the commotion.
“The anti-poaching unit never suspected anything wrong because it was the lions making noise and not the rhinos,” Fox said.
Fox noted that the poachers were armed, but apparently on foot, when they encountered the lions and were never able to get a shot off before they were mauled to death by the lions. He said that guests and staff never approach the lions unless in a big truck.
"It was a bit of luck for us and not so much luck for them," Fox said of the incident.