Conservationist West Mathewson was mauled to death on Wednesday by two mature lionesses he kept at his South African safari lodge. The 400lb white lionesses attacked the 69-year-old safari keeper after he unlocked the gate to take the big cats out for their usual morning walk.

Mathewson runs a popular safari at the Lion Tree Top Lodge located around 280 miles north west of Johannesburg in Hoedspruit. His wife, Gill, 65, tried to distract the lionesses but her husband had already sustained fatal injuries. Police officers arrived at the safari and declared Mathewson dead at the scene.

According to News24, the police have already opened an inquest docket on the incident which occurred around 8:30 am. Police spokesperson Brigadier Motlafela Mojapelo said the lionesses were tranquilised and have since been moved to a local endangered species centre near the area.

In 2017, the pair of felines named Tanner and Demi, also attacked a man who was collecting wood in the area with a companion. Qebekhulu Justice was mauled by one of the big cats as the other watched. At the time, his friend was on the other part of the veld and heard Justice scream for help. He threw stones at the lions and as the cats fled, he picked up Justice and walked to a phone to call for an ambulance. Justice suffered wounds on his legs, torso, chest and stomach. Being a diabetic, the man died seven days later.

The provincial health department however, said Justice's cause of death is due to other illnesses and cannot be directly attributed to the lion attack.

Mathewson at the time also believed his lions did not intentionally want to kill Justice as "he would've been dead in seconds." The lion keeper described his then two-year-old cats as friendly, tame and had "only wanted to play with the guy."

Tehri Fergusson, Mathewson's daughter-in-law, also told reporters that her father-in-law's death could have been the result of a "very rough play" with the lions.

"We have to realise, West was not as young as he thought he was. We are still not sure what actually happened but there was very rough play," Fergusson said.

The lionesses will eventually be released later on into the wild.

Firm grip: A white lioness named Sofia holds one of its three one-month-old cubs in its enclosure at the Buenos Aires zoo. REUTERS