A circus worker in Guatemala had both his arms violently ripped off by hungry tigers after reaching into their cage to give the animals a bucket of water to drink. Cipriano Alvarez's life was saved when onlookers managed to fend off the tigers with stones and sticks.

The 55-year-old was rushed to Cuilapa Hospital in Santa Rosa for an emergency operation that kept him alive. Those on the scene were not able to retrieve his arms from the tigers for reattachment however.

Pictures of the man being stabilised in the back of an ambulance were circulated by local media.

Mr Alvarez had only begun looking after the circus's 13 tigers two months ago, taking the job so he could support his family.

His son Victor told local media Mr Alvarez typically used metal rods to remove plates used to feed the animals.

He also explained how his father was instructed to feed the tigers for two days then leave them hungry on the third.

The tigers were being kept on waste ground in the village of El Jocotillo alongside a llama and camel, Jimmy Navarro, the regional director of a government agency for conservation confirmed.

Local reports have stated that the animals were being kept at the location temporarily before a permanent move to better conditions in Belize. The owners of the animals have said they will be paying for Mr Alvarez's medical bills.

Mr Alvarez remains in intensive care.

Indochinese tigers
Two tigers in a conservation area. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch