Mauled man known as 'Uncle Dalu'
Senior zookeeper Dalu Mncube was today mauled to death by a white tiger at Whangarei's controversial Zion Wildlife Gardens as eight horrified tourists, including two young children, looked on.
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Northland Police spokeswoman Sarah Kennett confirmed that, at about 11am today, two keepers went in to clean the white tiger enclosure when the animal attacked Mr Mncube.
The keeper suffered injuries to the abdomen and lower leg which involved "tearing" by the tiger.
Ms Kennett said that, despite the best efforts of the other keeper, the royal white Bengal tiger, wouldn't let go. Mr Mncube, who had saved a colleague in an attack earlier this year, died at the scene before an ambulance arrived at the park.
The tiger has since been shot dead. The other keeper was not injured.
The tourists who watched the attack - six adults and two children thought to be from England and New Caledonia - were being offered counselling through Victim Support.
The South African, known as "Uncle Dalu", had been the park's senior cat handler since Craig "The Lion Man" Busch was sidelined following a business dispute with the park's boss, his mother Patricia Busch.
Mr Busch says the fatal mauling today at the park is "absolutely tragic."
Zion Wildlife Park is home to 42 rare lions and tigers.
Mr Mncube had saved fellow park employee Demetri Price in February during a white tiger attack - understood to be by the same animal that killed Mr Mncube today - after he used his hands to open the animal's jaws. Mr Price required surgery after he was attacked by the cat who had been spooked by a pride of lions.
In a brief statement outside the park gates this afternoon, operator Glen Holland - a former Auckland Zoo director who took over from Craig Busch earlier this year - said it was "an incredibly sad day for Zion Wildlife Gardens".
Park staff were ''absolutely devastated'' at the death of a ''fantastic person and a personal friend'', Mr Holland said.
Police are investigating the park, but Whangarei police area commander Inspector Paul Dimery said there was no suggestion a crime had been involved. The death was likely to be a matter for the Department of Labour.
Police did not know what had triggered the attack, which was witnessed by 10 to 11 people and took place in a fully fenced den.
'TERRIBLE PERSONAL BLOW'
Mr Busch, who is embroiled in an employment dispute with Ms Busch, said the mauling was an "a terrible personal blow".
"I knew the keeper well. My thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues. Obviously I also know all the animals at the park which are owned by my Wildlife Trust, and I am deeply upset at the news of this attack," Mr Busch said.
Mr Busch is currently appearing before the Employment Relations Authority challenging his dismissal from the park in November 2008.
"I am available to assist the police and other authorities in any way as they deal with the shocking events of today. I am still unsure of the exact circumstances involved and cannot comment any further.
"The outstanding matters surrounding my ongoing involvement with the park are irrelevant in the context of what has happened today."
TOURISTS WITNESS TO ATTACK
An Auckland man who witnessed the attack told Deanna Harris, a Whangarei Leader journalist at the scene, that he was in shock at the incident.
The visibly upset man, who declined to be named, was visiting the park with two friends from the United Kingdom.
"It was very, very frightening."
The tourists, who planned to leave Whangarei soon, had already been interviewed extensively by police, Mr Dimery said.
A hearse had attended the scene and left about 1.40pm today.
Police would not say whether the tiger was the same animal that bit a park worker in February this year, an attack which also involved a royal white Bengal tiger.
In that case the park's biggest tiger, Abu, bit Australian worker Demetri Price on the knee. Mr Price was rescued by Mr Mncube, who was killed today, after he persuaded the tiger to let go.
In today's attack, however, desperate efforts by park staff to free the victim were in vain. The tiger - one of four royal whites at the zoo and only 120 in the world - was destroyed.
Police would not say whether Craig or Patricia Busch were present at the time of the attack.
ANIMAL WELFARE AND SAFETY CONCERNS
Mr Busch yesterday claimed animal welfare and safety standards had slipped at the park since the breakdown of his relationship with his mother.
"Things started really coming apart after they got the last tape off from the third [television] series," Mr Busch said at an Employment Relations Authority hearing yesterday.
"After that, they stopped staff from working with me, they wouldn't let me discuss anything with them about the park.
"I became very concerned with animal welfare issues."
In another incident at Zion, in April last year, a teenage volunteer from Scotland was bitten on the hands by a lion when she put her hands through a hole in the fence designed for TV cameras to stroke a cub.
In that case the Department of Labour criticised park management for not informing them promptly enough of the attack.
A Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) investigation expressed concern that animals were kept in crowded, insanitary conditions.
Meanwhile, Mr Busch's lawyer Daniel Erickson today refuted reports that an ERA hearing was underway at the park at the time of the attack.
MAULED KEEPER A HERO
Dalu Mncube, who was killed in today's attack, saved a fellow staffer at the park in February.
Park employee Demetri Price required surgery after he was attacked by a white tiger he had been working with. The cat had been spooked by a pride of lions, but Mr Mncube had stopped the attack by using his hands to open the tiger's jaws.
"I never got scared," Mr Mncube said at the time.
"You stay nice and calm. If I got scared and panicked we could have had two casualties ... it happened in a flash. It was over before we knew it."
A keeper of nine years' experience, Mr Mncube said all keepers knew to keep calm if an animal bit and he had played down his role at the time.
- with NZPA