Photograph by Andrew Coleman, National Geographic Creative
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A male lion roams Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. Authories are still unsure why the man was in the Ingwelala Private Nature Reserve or how he ran into conflict with a pack of lions.

Photograph by Andrew Coleman, National Geographic Creative

Suspected Poacher Mauled by Lions

The man's exact motives for trespassing at the reserve are not yet known, but he was killed in a region known for rhino poaching.

The body of what authorities suspect was a poacher was found mauled by a pride of lions in South Africa last Friday.

According to local reports, much of the male body was eaten, making it difficult to identify. However, nearby, a hunting rifle and ammunition were found.

The man's body was discovered inside Ingwelala Private Nature Reserve, a private game reserve near the famed Kruger National Park, in northeastern South Africa. Because the man was allegedly intruding on the reserve and found with weapons, authorities believe he was there for poaching.

Whether he was there to specifically poach lions can't be determined without more direct evidence.

Local outlet Sowetan Live quotes a local reserve employee who describes the area as "lion territoy."

The region has historically seen higher levels of rhino poaching, which is a more lucrative animal to kill illegally. In 2017, rhino poaching in the region declined slightly. The Kruger area saw a drastic increase from the 13 rhinos killed in 2007 to the more than 1,000 killed in 2014. In parts of Asia, the horn is in high demand, where it's used as an (ineffective) form of alternative medicine or carved into works of art.

Michael 't Sas-Rolfes studies market influences on poaching at the University of Oxford and was in South Africa at the time the body was found.

"If you look at the economics of poaching, these guys are taking a risk. It's got to be worth their while," he said. "The probability [of being caught] and penalty is about the same... but the price for lion body parts is way lower than rhino horn."

Poachers in the region are also known to hunt for bush meat or elephant ivory.

When lions are poached, Sas-Rolfes says it's sometimes a revenge killing or a matter of opportunistic circumstance.

"The body parts taken are typically teeth and claws. At the moment, it isn't a huge epidemic," he says, though he added that the price of lion fangs may be increasing. Still, he is quick to say he doesn't want to characterize lion parts as becoming more lucrative because this perception can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lions Get Kicked Out of Their Pride in Rare Video

Of the lions that have been poached in the region, many have been killed at sanctuaries and reserves.

Last October, two rescued lions were poached at their enclosure on a nature reserve. They were found missing their heads, tails, paws, and skins. In addition to being used for decorative purposes, such parts are known to be used in a traditional medicine called muti.

In an interview given to National Geographic last fall, Paul Funston from the big cat conservation group Panthera speculated that the legal trade of captive lion parts could be stoking wild demand. Since 2016, lion poaching has been slowly, but continuously, rising. Often lion parts are found alongside rhino parts.