The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Poachers were hunting rhinos. They were attacked by lions instead, game reserve says.

(Sibuya Game Reserve)

Sometime after the sun set Sunday, a group of men entered a dark South African reserve carrying a high-powered rifle, a silencer, an ax and a wire cutter — tools that poachers use to shoot and kill rhinos before sawing off their horns, according to Nick Fox, the owner of Sibuya Game Reserve.

At least one of the men never made it out.

Early the next morning, an anti-poaching dog on patrol gave its handler a warning that “something was amiss,” Fox told The Washington Post. At the same time, there was “loud commotion coming from the lions.”

The men were apparently attacked by the big cats. Fox said that a skull was later found in the area, as well as “half of a pelvis” but “very, very little was left.” He was uncertain how many people entered the reserve and how many of them were killed by the lions, but three sets of shoes and gloves were left behind, along with a backpack filled with food, he said.

It’s possible, Fox added, that one person escaped.

The game reserve owner said Friday that tools found at the scene were a “surefire sign” that the men were poachers. He added that the ax — the “quickest way to hack off the horns” — had traces of blood on it from another kill.

The men had enough supplies to last several days, indicating that they planned to set up camp in the bush and track the rhinos, he said in a phone interview Friday.

“We’re pretty convinced they are rhino poachers,” Fox said.

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A police spokeswoman, Capt. Mali Govender, said investigators recovered remains from the reserve and that they have been sent for forensic testing, according to HeraldLive. The rifle has also been sent to a ballistics laboratory “to establish if it has been used in any other poaching or crimes.”

Following the gruesome discovery, Fox said in a statement that six lions believed to have been involved in the deadly encounter were “darted,” or given anesthesia via a tranquilizer gun so that authorities could investigate the scene; at that time, the lions were assessed by veterinarians and conservation workers, who determined that their behavior toward the crew in a game-viewing vehicle “appeared no different from that exhibited toward these vehicles over the last ten years.”

“The general consensus in the game industry is that lions view a game viewing vehicle containing people as something entirely different from individuals who are walking on the ground,” Fox said. “At Sibuya Game Reserve we only view game from specialized game viewing vehicles and not on foot due to the extremely dense bush and thick forest on the Reserve.

“Over the last few days game guides and anti-poaching staff have continued to drive game viewing vehicles in the vicinity of this pride to check for any behavioral differences and they have confirmed that to date there have been none.”

The world’s last male northern white rhino died March 20, leaving only two females of the subspecies alive in the world. (Video: Reuters)

Asked why the lions would have attacked, Fox said they are “complete opportunists” and will go after anything they see, even if they have just had a meal.

“Whether they were hungry or not, that’s not necessarily the point,” he said. “If you stumble into them and don’t act the right way, they will see you as prey.”

When people run, Fox said, the lions will chase them. He said the men may have stumbled into the pride in the night, but that it’s impossible to know exactly what happened inside the thick bush.

South Africa, home to the largest population of the world’s 30,000 rhinos, has seen a dramatic rise in poaching since 2007, Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, told The Post. “Numbers have gone from fewer than 10 in 2007 to well over 1,000 in the past few years,” she said.

Anti-poaching efforts have led many reserves to create monitoring teams. Handlers use trained dogs as an early warning and homing beacons to track the whereabouts of their rhinos daily.

Sibuya Game Reserve is one of those open for safaris on the Eastern Cape. From the ocean to the bush, Sibuya’s wildlife spans from birds to Africa’s “big-five game” — lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and Cape buffaloes.

Rhino poaching carries a jail sentence in South Africa. Still, in 2017 alone, more than 1,000 adult rhinos were slaughtered. In recent years, poachers have moved from Kruger National Park, Africa’s biggest wildlife conservancy, to parks they perceive as easier targets, such as Sibuya, according to Ellis.

This is not the first time that poachers have targeted the Eastern Cape. In 2016, two Sibuya rhinos were slaughtered for their horns, and a third was severely mutilated. The crisis continues to haunt South Africa and has spilled into Namibia and Zimbabwe, Ellis said.

According to Ellis, poachers are members of well-organized criminal networks driven by a demand from the Asian market. They view rhino horn, which is worth more than gold or platinum, as a valuable commodity, like elephant ivory or drugs.

“It’s not a crime of poverty,” she said. “It’s a crime of greed.”

As news spread about the deadly encounter at Sibuya Game Reserve, some conservationists expressed approval that poachers may have received due punishment from the lions.

“Rest in Pieces,” comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted.

Fox, the reserve owner, declined to comment on the response, noting that veterinarians and conservationists are focusing on protecting the rhinos. After the human remains were found, he said, workers checked on the rhinos and “we’re thankful they’re all safe at the moment.”

Fox described the mood at the South African reserve as one of “relief.”

“We just have to carry on,” he said. “We’re doing our very best to protect them.”

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