Written by Christopher Mele (Sandra E. Garcia contributed reporting.)
A man suspected of being a rhino poacher was killed last week by an elephant and his remains devoured by a pride of lions at a South African park, officials said.
Rangers at Kruger National Park and other searchers found only a human skull and a pair of pants, the park said in a statement Friday.
Four of the dead man’s accomplices were arrested, authorities said.
The man’s accomplices told his relatives that they had been in the park to poach rhinos Tuesday night when he was killed by an elephant, local officials said.
A search party, including rangers on foot and members of the park’s air wing, searched the area that was described by the family but could not find the body because light was fading, the statement said. Searchers found the remains Thursday morning.
The managing executive of the park, Glenn Phillips, offered his condolences to the family of the dead man, who was not identified.
“Entering Kruger National Park illegally and on foot is not wise,” he said in the statement. “It holds many dangers and this incident is evidence of that.”
Phillips said it was sad to see the daughters of the man “mourning the loss of their father, and worse still, only being able to recover very little of his remains.”
Kruger National Park advertises itself as offering “an African safari adventure of a lifetime.” At nearly 2 million hectares, it is the largest national reserve in South Africa, according to its website, which added that it was home to animals such as lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards and African buffaloes.
Last July, rangers and police officers said that as many as three men suspected of being rhino poachers had been killed by lions at a South African game preserve.
Rhino horn is worth about $9,000 per pound in Asia, driving a lucrative and illicit trade. It is a prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine and is considered a status symbol.
“It’s one of the most expensive wildlife products on the illegal market and that’s why these poachers go after it,” Michael Slattery, founder of the Texas Christian University Rhino Initiative, said Sunday. “The current prices for a rhino horn are anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 a kilogram. They are seeing dollar signs. It is more expensive than gold and cocaine, so the demand is driving these poachers.”
South Africa is home to about 20,000 wild rhinos, more than 80 percent of the world’s population. About one-third of the animals are owned by private breeders.
Since 2008, more than 7,000 rhinos have been hunted illegally, with 1,028 killed in 2017, according to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs.
The poachers can get more money if they can deliver a complete rhino horn, but to get a full rhino horn they have to kill the animal, Slattery said. Poachers drug the rhinos and then use a machete to “hack away at the face,” he said. The rhinos then bleed to death.
A rhino horn, which is made of 100 percent keratin, or the equivalent of compressed hair, provides no health benefits to humans.
Still, people grind up the horn and use it in a drink in a misguided effort to reduce fevers and cure hangovers, among other things. Rhino horns are also given as gifts, Slattery said.
“That equation pretty quickly tips over to these animals disappearing before our eyes,” he said.