As It Happens

South African reserve owner rejects talk of 'karma' after lions eat suspected poachers

The remains of a group of suspected rhino poachers were found near a pride of lions at the Sibuya Game Reserve in South Africa.

'I'm just extremely grateful that my rhinos are safe,' said Nick Fox of the Sibuya Game Reserve

A pride of lions mauled and killed a group of suspected rhino poachers at the Sibuya Game Reserve in South Africa. (Sibuya Game Reserve)

Read story transcript

Nick Fox is just relieved his rhinos are safe, after suspected rhino poachers were mauled to death and eaten by lions on a South African game reserve.

"I know there's been a lot of social media talk about karma and all sorts of things, but I just don't want to go there," Fox, the owner of the Sibuya Game Reserve, told As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

"From my point of view, I'm just extremely grateful that my rhinos are safe."

Fox says the alleged poachers entered the private Sibuya reserve, near the south-east town of Kenton-on-Sea, sometime late Sunday night or early Monday morning.

They were armed with a high-powered rifle, a silencer, an axe and wire cutters.

A wildlife ranger with an anti-poaching dog heard a loud commotion coming from the lions in the early hours of Monday morning, Fox said, but dismissed it because the lions are usually active at night.

"As it turned out, in retrospect it was probably something else," Fox added.

Very few remains

It wasn't until Tuesday that they came across what was left of at least two, possibly three, people.

Other than a skull, very few remains were found near the pride of lions. This made it difficult to determine how many people were part of the group.

Nick Fox, the owner of the Sibuya Game Reserve, says that all the rhinos are accounted for after a pride of lions killed suspected rhino poachers. (Sibuya Game Reserve)

There were also three sets of shoes and gloves left behind, along with a backpack filled with food.

Fox said several of the lions had to be tranquilized so that it would be safe to recover the remains, and so police forensic investigators could search for evidence.

Fox described the area where the group entered as being "extremely thick bush" and believes the alleged poachers stumbled across the pride of lions. 

"Generally if you meet lions in an open area and you know what to do, if you stand them down, they won't attack. But these ones definitely did attack," he said.

Poaching in South Africa

The axe that was found had traces of blood on it, which Fox said was proof that the victims were rhino poachers.

Axes are used to remove the rhino horns, which are worth a fortune on the black market. Fox estimates that a large horn sells for more than $1 million US. 

Poaching has become an endemic in South Africa, Fox said. More than 7,000 have been killed in South Africa in the past decade, and nine have been killed this year in the Eastern Cape province.

The pressure on private game reserves has grown dramatically in the last couple of years- Nick Fox, owner of Sibuya Game Reserve

At his private reserve, which is home to the "big-five game" — lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and Cape buffaloes — Fox said they do not have the same amount of resources as federal wildlife reserves.

Fox points to Kruger National Park, one of Africa's largest game reserves, as an example. He said it suffered heavy poaching losses, and so the government channelled more funds into anti-poaching efforts.

This forced poachers away from Kruger, and toward "softer targets" —  like the Sibuya Game Reserve.

"The pressure on private game reserves has grown dramatically in the last couple of years," Fox said.

Reserve has been a target before

This is not the first time that the Sibuya reserve has been targeted. In March 2016, poachers killed two female rhinos for their horns and left another male fatally injured.

South African officials say suspected rhino poachers have been mauled to death by lions at a South African game reserve. (Sibuya Game Reserve )

It was the death of the 25-year-old bull that hit Fox the hardest. Fox purchased the rhino when it was young. It was orphaned, and Fox had to feed it until it was old enough to fend for itself. This created a strong bond.

"He actually knew my voice. He would come if he heard my voice. So for me, to lose particularly him was terribly traumatic," he said.

As for the latest attack, police are patrolling the area in case any suspected poachers survived.

Fox is now focused on his rhinos.

"Out of this whole incident, fortunately we've managed to check all our rhinos subsequently and, touch wood, they are all safe."

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from Associated Press. Produced by Samantha Lui.