Suspected Rhino Poacher Killed by an Elephant, Eaten by Lions

CC BY 2.0. An elephant at Kruger National Park in July, 2018. (Dario Crespi)

All that was left of the man was a skull and a pair of pants, say authorities at South Africa's Kruger National Park.

It may very well be that elephants have our number. They are social and smart, and they often seem to act more humanely than humans. And they know we are up to no good; they have even learned to avoid poachers by learning how to secretly migrate at night and "discuss" safety. They have deep family bonds and show signs of empathy. After a death, elephant family members display grief and have been known to revisit the bones of the dead for years, touching them with their trunks.

But are they now even becoming active vigilantes? In the case of poaching, one can hope. And while we can't know the intention behind what went down last week in South Africa's Kruger National Park (KNP), if I were a poacher, I'd be concerned.

Here's what happened, according to the Sunday Times. Five rhino poachers went into the park, said Police Brigadier Leonard Hlathi, "when suddenly an elephant attacked and killed one of them."

OK, so that's all we know so far. But really, elephants are smart and of course, they never forget. They see poachers killing their family members, who is to say they wouldn't become defensive upon the site of armed men up to no good?

The gory twist here is what happened after the dead man's co-poachers hightailed it out of there.

"His accomplices claimed to have carried his body to the road so that passers-by could find it in the morning. They then vanished from the park," Hlathi continued. "Once outside, they reportedly informed a relative of the dead man about their ordeal."

Relatives contacted the park, and a search was begun. After three days, the man's scant remains were found.

"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," said Isaac Phaahla, GM of communications and marketing at the KNP.

While rhino poaching numbers have been slowly waning since 2015, the statistics are still harrowing. According to Save The Rhino, more than 8,000 rhinos have been killed in the last 10 years. "South Africa holds nearly 80% of the world’s rhinos and has been the country hit hardest by poaching criminals, with more than 1,000 rhinos killed each year between 2013 and 2017," notes the organization. Half of all rhino poachings happen in KNP.

Since this latest incident, three of the suspects have been arrested and are facing charges of possession of firearms and ammunition without a license, conspiracy to poach as well as trespassing. A formal inquest will be looking at the poacher's death.

It's all just an awful situation. I don't celebrate the loss of a human life, but I do hope that it helps to serve as a cautionary tale to other poachers. I also hope that events like this help nudge law officials, policymakers, and conservation non-profits to focus on community empowerment when creating anti-poaching strategies. For local people trying to survive in areas with few opportunities, I assume that the lure of poaching is more about structural inequality than a the love of killing iconic animals.

Regardless, poaching is obviously dangerous for the animals ... and increasingly, for the poachers as well. As KNP managing executive Glenn Phillips said, “Entering Kruger National Park illegally and on foot is not wise, it holds many dangers and this incident is evidence of that."

And I'm secretly guessing that the elephants are well aware of that message...