The South African, known as 'Uncle Dalu ' to many, had hand-reared many of the lions and tigers at ' />

Dalu Mncube was the "grandad" of the big cats.

The South African, known as "Uncle Dalu" to many, had hand-reared many of the lions and tigers at Zion Wildlife Gardens from cubs.

A humble man who downplayed his role in saving a fellow cat handler from an earlier tiger attack, 26-year-old Mr Mncube was himself yesterday fatally mauled by the park's largest tiger.

Mr Mncube, the righthand-man to Zion's "Lion Man" Craig Busch, was killed by a male white tiger while cleaning an enclosure with another keeper at the sanctuary near Whangarei, made famous by a television show.

Despite the best efforts of other staff members who rushed to his aid, the tiger would not let Mr Mncube go and he died at the scene from injuries to his head, torso and lower leg.

As many as 11 people witnessed the attack, including eight tourists and two children who were last night receiving counselling along with distressed park workers.

Police, the Department of Labour and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry have launched investigations. The coroner has also been advised.

The tiger is believed to have been 260kg Abu, one of four white tigers at the park, who also attacked keeper Demetri Price in February.

During that attack, Mr Mncube plunged his fingers into Abu's mouth, then used a fire extinguisher to force the animal to release Mr Price.

"I never got scared," Mr Mncube told the Herald. "You stay nice and calm. If I got scared and panicked we could have had two casualties ... it happened in a flash."

The tiger, one of only 120 white tigers in the world, has been put down and the park has been closed while investigations are under way.

Mr Mncube is survived by his partner, Sharon Arnott, and 1-year-old daughter Starskea.

A neighbour said Mr Mncube was a marvellous father. "When Starskea was very tiny, he'd either carry her or sling her over his shoulder - when he was washing the car, walking around - he took her everywhere. He loved her very much, just a nice man.

"He's always very pleasant, Dalu, always says hello when he sees you. And we all knew what he did, dealing with tigers."

Next-door neighbour Samuel Macharia said Starskea came to play with his daughters most days.

"It's shocking news," he said.

"They're both very good people. He's been a very good neighbour - very social ... he's a very good guy."

Mr Busch, who has been fired from Zion by his estranged mother Patricia Busch, released a written statement yesterday saying he was deeply upset by the news of the attack.

"This is an absolutely tragic event for all involved. It is a terrible personal blow for me as I knew the keeper well. My thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues."

He offered to assist the police and other investigating authorities.

Former Auckland Zoo boss Glen Holland was last year appointed as a "licensed operator", as required by MAF, to be responsible for the animals at Zion. Mr Holland said the attack was incredibly sad.

"We are currently focusing on supporting the family of the employee who died tragically today and their colleagues here at Zion Wildlife Gardens who are devastated.

"We will be organising counselling for all of our employees. We ask for your consideration at this difficult time and request you to please respect the privacy of those involved."

Mr Holland said the staff member was a "fantastic person, a personal friend" but Zion was unable to comment further due to the investigations.

At a press conference yesterday, Northland police Inspector Paul Dimery said the attack was being treated as a criminal investigation, but there was nothing to suggest the death was suspicious.

With nine years' experience, Mr Mncube was the most senior animal handler at Zion.

Animal behaviourist Mark Vette told Campbell Live last night that it was important to remember that big cats could attack at any time.

Mr Vette, who trains animals for film and television, said a trainer's confidence with an animal came down to experience.

"It's a professional skill, but it's a high-risk game."