Three lions living in Tzaneen Lion and Predator Park, South Africa, were found decapitated in January 2017. Their bodies had been stolen, police believe, to be sold to traditional medicine practitioners in Mozambique. Then, later that year, another big cat was found poisoned and mutilated.
Now, it appears to be the turn of the hunter. Police are investigating the death of a man discovered decapitated and mauled to death by a pride of lions in Ingwelala Private Nature Reserve in Hoedspruit, South Africa.
"A scream was heard and the lions were scattered by the sound of gunshots but it was too late to do anything for him. He was eaten," a worker from a nearby reserve told journalists, reports The Mirror.
While the identity of the man is yet to be confirmed, local police believe he was a poacher who had been in the area hunting big game. A loaded rifle located close to the body supports their theory.
"It seems the victim was poaching in the game park when he was attacked and killed by lions," Moatshe Ngoepe, a spokesperson from the Limpopo police department, told AFP.
African lions are listed as "vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but certain subspecies meet the criteria for "endangered" and many conservationists are worried African lions could be extinct as soon as 2050 if poaching continues at current levels.
In just 21 years (1993 to 2014). Africa's wild lion population has fallen by 43 percent. There are now thought to be only 20,000 left roaming the African savannah.
The king of the jungle faces several threats, including habitat loss, prey depletion, and being shot by farmers guarding livestock. But in recent years, there has been a new devastating trend: Lions are being killed in large numbers to satisfy a growing market for lion parts in traditional medicine.
While there is a history of using lion parts in traditional medicine in Africa, there is now a rising demand for lion bones in East Asia. This is thought to have been sparked by the increasing rarity of tiger bones, the result of overhunting, declining tiger numbers, and tougher restrictions on hunting. Lion bones, it seems, are a cheaper, more accessible substitute.
The trend can be seen in export numbers – in 2008, 50 lion skeletons were legally exported from South Africa but by 2011, this figure increased to 573.
Last year, the South African government made the controversial decision to legally export 800 skeletons of captive-bred lions. They argued it would satisfy a demand that otherwise might be met by poaching wild lions. Conservationists disagreed, pointing out it would likely help fuel the market for lion bones, both legal and illegal.