A South African conservationist has been killed by lions he hand-reared, the family said on Thursday. West Mathewson, 69, was walking two white lionesses on Wednesday when one of the animals attacked and killed him without warning.

A lioness became aggressive towards the other and then turned her attention to Mathewson, reports the BBC’s Nomsa Maseko from Johannesburg. His relatives have said that the attack could have been the result of very rough play.

The incident took place on the premises of the family-owned Lion Tree Top Lodge, in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province.

Known as “Uncle West,” Mathewson had raised the lions since they were cubs and was used to interacting with them.

His wife Gill, 65, was driving behind her husband when the lion attacked.

“She tried her best to rescue her husband, but was unable to do so,” family attorney Marina Botha said in a statement emailed to the AFP news agency.

The lionesses were tranquillized following the attack and have been taken to an endangered species center, the BBC reported.

The family assured they would be “released into the best environment available to them.”

Mathewson and his wife had four sons and six grandchildren.

“The family is heartbroken by the loss of their husband, father and grandfather,” the statement said. “They find comfort and peace with the fact that he died while living his dream, being in nature and with his lions that were so close to his heart.”

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