Limpopo police investigators made a gruesome discovery on Wednesday when they arrested four women near Groblersdal for illegally possessing the heads and body parts of two freshly-killed lions.
According to SAPS spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Moatshe Ngoepe, SAPS investigators and members of the stock theft unit were conducting a joint intelligence-driven operation into the illegal killing of lions and the trade in their body parts when they made the breakthrough.
The operation was conducted in the Tubatse policing area outside Burgersfort.
Two lion heads, eight paws with claws and two lion skins, were seized, and four suspects from various areas of the province were taken into custody.
The suspects, all women aged between 29 and 48, are from Venda, Lebowakgomo, Phalaborwa and Tubatse, Ngoepe said.
"They are scheduled to appear before the Praktiseer Magistrate Court on Friday. The origin of the body parts is unknown, and our investigations are continuing," he added.
Poisoned, disfigured lions
A number of lions have been reported poisoned and disfigured on private properties in Limpopo over the last 18 months, leaving authorities perplexed by the factors driving the killings.
In those incidents, the heads and paws of the animals had been removed, but the carcasses left behind.
While several arrests have been made in many of those cases, it is unknown how many convictions there have been and what sentences have been handed down.
According to Walter Slippers of Ingogo Safaris, a captive lion breeder and hunt-operator who lost lions poisoned by poachers earlier this year, he is unaware of any further follow-up details following the arrest of the perpetrator by police.
"As far as I know, the person arrested for killing my lions is still working in a barber-shop near Alldays. I have never been called to testify in court," he said.
Late in January, a white lion was discovered in an enclosure on Slippers' property without its head and paws. The suspects appear to have been disturbed as they also attempted to remove the skin but failed.
The suspects allegedly threw poisoned chicken meat into the enclosure. All three lions that were in the cage ate the meat, but two more lions were only incapacitated, and recovered after being treated by a vet.
A disturbing feature about this latest arrest and seizure is the fact that the skins of two lions were also recovered with the claws and heads, adding fuel to speculation they may have been wild animals that had been trapped, poisoned or poached in protected areas or wild free-ranging game farms, as opposed to captive breeding enclosures.
Dr Kelly Marnewick, manager of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's (EWT) carnivore conservation programme said: "These incidents appear to be linked to the trade in their body parts.
"It is clear that poaching is an increasing threat to lions and needs to be urgently addressed and the EWT is very concerned about the apparent increased poaching of lions.
"We do not have a good understanding of the trade in lion parts and what drives it. While we have very little information on this case, we commend the police on making the arrests and hope that the information obtained from in this case can shed some light on trade routes and uses of lion parts."