(CNN) – Only a skull and a pair of trousers remained after a suspected rhino poacher was killed by an elephant and then eaten by lions in Kruger National Park, South African National Parks said.
The incident happened after the man entered the park Monday with four others to target rhinos, according to a parks service statement.
An elephant “suddenly” attacked the alleged poacher, killing him, and “his accomplices claimed to have carried his body to the road so that passersby could find it in the morning. They then vanished from the Park,” police said.
His family were notified of his death late Tuesday by his fellow poachers, and a search party set out to recover the body. Rangers scoured on foot and police flew over the area, but because of failing light it could not be found.
The search resumed Thursday morning and, with the help of added field rangers, police discovered what was left of his body.
Police say they arrested three men and seized guns following the alleged poacher’s death.
“Indications found at the scene suggested that a pride of lions had devoured the remains leaving only a human skull and a pair of pants,” the statement said.
Glenn Phillips, the managing executive of Kruger National Park, extended his condolences to the man’s family.
“Entering Kruger National Park illegally and on foot is not wise, it holds many dangers and this incident is evidence of that,” he warned. “It is very sad to see the daughters of the deceased mourning the loss of their father, and worse still, only being able to recover very little of his remains.”
Three individuals who joined the illegal hunt were arrested Wednesday by the South African Police Service, and officers continue to investigate what happened.
The suspects appeared in Komatipoort Magistrate Court on Friday to face charges of possessing firearms and ammunition without a license, conspiracy to poach and trespassing. A judge remanded them to custody and they will be back in court this week, pending a formal bail application.
The African rhino is targeted for its horn because of the belief among some who practice Eastern medicine that the horn has benefits as an aphrodisiac, making it more valuable than cocaine in parts of the world.
Lions left only the poacher’s skull and a pair of his pants, officials say.
Of special concern is the black rhino, which is considered critically endangered after its population tumbled from about 65,000 to 1970 to 2,400 in 1995, according to Kruger National Park. Conservation efforts have boosted their numbers, and the world’s remaining 5,000 or so black rhinos live predominantly in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
In 2016, there were between 349 and 465 black rhinos living at Kruger and between 6,600 and 7,800 white rhinos, who also suffer from poaching, South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs said.
Kruger is considered an intensive protection zone, and the government employs a range of resources to deter poaching, including aircraft, dogs, special rangers and an environmental crime investigation unit.
Of the 680 poaching and trafficking arrests made in 2016 by the South African Police Service, 417 were in and around Kruger, the department said. In September, the department announced that six men — including two syndicate leaders, two police officers and a former police officer — had been arrested for trafficking in rhino horns.