JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A rhinoceros poacher was stomped to death by an elephant and eaten by lions in a South Africa wildlife preserve, and rangers found just his skull and trousers, authorities said.
The man and two others were hunting illegally at Kruger National Park last week when the elephant surprised them, park spokesman Isaac Phaahla said. The hunter's companions dragged his body to a spot near a road and told the man's family what happened. It took two days for rangers to find his remains.
South Africans weighed in on social media, with many celebrating the poacher's death, calling it justice or applauding the animals for "restoring law and order in the jungle." But others blamed the economic desperation that leads people to become poachers, and the international criminal syndicates they work for.
Julian Rademeyer, a project leader for TRAFFIC, which monitors the international trade in wildlife, said effective measures are needed to attack the global rings that deal in rhino horn and elephant ivory.
"The rage and anger of many people at the rampant poaching that is endangering rhinos and elephants is understandable. But the joy and gloating over the death of a poacher is crass and misguided," Rademeyer said. "Killing poachers will not stop poaching. Poachers are just the foot soldiers of international criminal syndicates."
The world's rhinos are in danger of being hunted to extinction. They are prized for their horns, which are ground up and used in traditional Chinese medicine as a supposed cure for a variety of ailments.
South Africa, which has about 80% of the world's remaining rhinos, has seen aggressive poaching of the animals in recent years. Last year 769 rhinos were killed illegally , down from more than 1,000 annually since 2013, according to Save the Rhino.
"Poaching is a serious, ongoing problem in the park," Phaahla said of Kruger, which covers 7,500 square miles in southeastern South Africa, making it about the size of the U.S. state of New Jersey.
After the death of the poacher, whose name and nationality were not released, relatives asked park officials to help recover the body. Rangers searched on the ground and by air but did not find the remains before it got dark, Phaahla said. The two surviving hunters gave officials a more precise description of where they left the dead man. Police arrested them on suspicion of poaching.
"The next day, our field rangers searched in the bush and made the gruesome discovery," Phaahla said. "There was a pride of lion nearby which apparently had devoured his body."
Police said they seized guns and ammunition from the surviving men. They were charged with illegal possession of firearms, trespassing and conspiracy to poach.
"On most days, we have close to 15 poaching groups of three individuals each who are hunting illegally for rhinos," Phaahla said. "Our rangers are well-trained and making progress in controlling the poaching."
Rademeyer, the author of "Killing for Profit," a book about the illegal trade in rhino horn, blamed "the appalling socio-economic conditions in South Africa that drive young men to take risks to hunt rhinos and elephants."
In addition to fighting international criminal syndicates, "what is also needed is to win support in rural communities for conservation. People living around parks must see the value of wildlife," Rademeyer said. "They must see the economic benefits of wildlife. We need a national pride, of all South Africans, in our wildlife."