Two lions, rescued from circuses in Peru and Colombia and shifted to a South African sanctuary, have been found dead. Authorities suspect that the cats were killed for ritual purposes as heads, tails, skin and paws were missing from the remains.

José and Liso were among the 33 lions rescued from circuses from the South American countries in May 2016.

Animal Defenders International (ADI) had rescued Jose and Liso, and had flown them to Johannesburg on a chartered cargo flight. The animals were then shifted to a 5,000-hectare private farm in the northern Limpopo province. Since then, the duo had been living at the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary.

ADI has said that it will offer a reward for information related to the killings. Currently, the case is under investigation, with South African police and anti-poaching units trying to find the killers, the BBC reported.

The deaths have left South Africa, especially ADI head Jan Creamer, heartbroken.

"José and Liso had suffered a terrible life of abuse but their new life in Africa had given them a new lease of life," the animal rights' group said in a statement, adding that José had suffered brain damage from blows to the head in the circus.

The group also said that it has rescued animals for the last 21 years, but this was a first incident of such kind.

"These animals had never, until today, walked on grass, soil and smelled the ground on the soil.

"When you see them rubbing against the trees, that's the first time they have ever done that so it's really magical, everything we have tried to do with this project is to give these lions back the life that was stolen from them for years with these cruel travelling circuses," Tim Phillips, vice president of ADI, had said when the animals were rescued.

circus lions Peru South Africa
José and Liso were among 33 lions rescued from circuses in South America - Representational image Dan Kitwood/Getty Images