A conservationist and lodge owner was mauled to death by two 400lb white lions after the animals “had a falling out” while wrestling and turned on him.
The big cats, named Tanner and Demi, attacked dad-of-four West Mathewson, 69, in front of his horrified wife Gill during “rough play” while taking them for their daily walk.
Brave Gill tried to distract the lions and alerted neighbours, but by the time paramedics arrived at Tree Top Lodge in Hoedspruit, in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, there was nothing that could be done to save West.
West is the second person to be due after being attacked by the rescued lionesses. They mauled a local man after escaping their enclosure in 2017.
He saved them from a cruel death when he bought them from a park where lions are bred until they are old enough to be shot for cash by trophy hunters.
The five-year-old lions, which were regularly taken on walks with children and guests at West’s farm, were tranquilised and moved to another game lodge in the area after killing him.
The lion keeper died after a game of wrestling with two lionesses “got a bit rough”, the Times reported.
West was playing with Demi and Tanner when “instincts got the better of one of them” and he was fatally injured, the report added.
West’s daughter-in-law Tehri Mathewson told the newspaper the lions would “definitely not be put down”.
She added: “West loved those cats as much as his children and spent much of the day with them every day.
“They didn’t mean him any harm and it was just a tragic accident.
“They will continue to be loved and protected until the day they leave this earth.”
In a separate interview, she told the Telegraph the death might have been the result of “rough play”.
She added: “We have to realise, West was not as young as he thought he was. We are still not sure what happened, but there was very rough play.”
She said the lionesses had not tried to eat her father-in-law.
More than 2,000 visitors had paid to interact with the lions at the lodge.
A family friend said: “West brought those lions into his life when they were just a week old and he bottle fed them every day and they were like his children and he loved them.
“He played with them and walked with them for hours every day and thousands of guests interacted with them every year and they never ever showed any signs of turning.
“It seems Tanner and Demi had a bit of a falling out and West was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and they turned their attention to him and he was severely mauled.
“Gill was following him as he walked with them in her car but there was nothing she could do but raise the alarm but by the time help arrived he had already bled out.”
Limpopo police spokesperson Brigadier Motlfela Mojapelo said: “It is believed the two lionesses attacked the deceased during one of their usual walks with their owner.
“The incident took place as his wife was watching helplessly. The police and emergency services were activated but the man was found with multiple injuries and declared dead.
“The lionesses were darted and moved to another game lodge in the area.”
Affectionately known as “Uncle West”, he took visitors to his lodge on daily walks with the lionesses and his website shows children playing with the predators in the grounds.
A statement from a spokesperson for the Blood Lions campaign, which opposes captive lion breeding, cub petting and canned hunting industries, said: “Our heartfelt condolences go out to West Mathewson’s family and friends.
“Sadly, this tragic accident is not an isolated case in South Africa’s captive lion breeding industry.
“Records show that in the last 10 years at least 40 similar incidents have occurred with a quarter leading to fatalities.
“This only reflects those incidents that have been reported in the media and hence there could be more unreported cases.
“Lions and other big cats, habituated or not, are not domestic animals, but are predators that don’t lose their wild instinct.”
In 2017, the lionesses mauled a local man, Justice Cebelchulu, 46, after climbing a tree and leaping over an electric fence surrounding their compound.
Justice worked at a neighbouring property and was chopping wood when he was attacked. The lions were scared off by colleagues who pelted them with stones.
Justice lost his fight for life in hospital days after the attack, although health officials said the diabetic died due to “other diseases”.
The death could not be attributed to the lion attack, the provincial health department said at the time.
West faced pressure to euthanise his pets, and he told the media that the lions did not mean to kill Justice and were “only playing”.
He blamed Justice, saying the man made the mistake of running away from them and that the lions then attacked him.
He said that he raised the lions to both save them from canned hunting where they are put in enclosures so hunters can shoot them dead and to raise awareness of their plight.