Men due in court for killing Zimbabwe's Cecil the lion

Harare (AFP) – Two men were due to appear in a Zimbabwean court on poaching charges Wednesday after a wealthy American dentist killed a beloved lion at a national park, sparking waves of criticism around the world.

Cecil the lion, a popular attraction among international visitors to Hwange National Park, was lured outside the reserve’s boundaries by bait and killed earlier this month.

The hunter was identified as Walter James Palmer, an experienced trophy hunter from Minnesota, who paid $50,000 for the hunt.

Professional Zimbabwean hunter Theo Bronkhorst and local landowner Honest Ndlovu will appear in court in Victoria Falls on Wednesday to face poaching charges.

“Both the professional hunter and land owner had no permit or quota to justify the offtake of the lion and therefore are liable for the illegal hunt,” the Zimbabwean Parks Authority said in a statement Tuesday.

“(They) are being jointly charged for illegally hunting the lion.”

The statement made no mention of Palmer, but added that Bronkhorst’s son Zane was also wanted for questioning.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force charity said Palmer and Bronkhorst had gone out at night with a spotlight and tied a dead animal to their vehicle to lure Cecil into range.

“Palmer shot Cecil with a bow and arrow but this shot didn’t kill him. They tracked him down and found him 40 hours later when they shot him with a gun,” the charity alleged.

It added that the hunters unsuccessfully tried to hide the dead lion’s tracking collar, which was part of a University of Oxford research programme.

“Cecil was skinned and beheaded. We don’t know the whereabouts of the head,” the charity alleged.

 

– Semi-domesticated –

 

Cecil, aged about 13, was said by safari operators to be an “iconic” animal who was recognised by many visitors to Hwange due to his distinctive black mane.

“A lot of people travel long distances coming to Zimbabwe to enjoy our wildlife and obviously the absence of Cecil is a disaster,” Emmanuel Fundira, president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, told reporters in the capital Harare.

He described the lion as “almost semi-domesticated”.

Hwange attracted 50,000 visitors last year, about half of them from abroad.

Palmer is well-known in US hunting circles as an expert shot with his bow and arrow, and has travelled across the world in pursuit of leopards, buffalo, rhino, elk and other large mammals.

Palmer, who reportedly pleaded guilty in 2008 to poaching a black bear in Wisconsin, said he had “relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt”.

“I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practise responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion,” Palmer said in a statement.

“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt.”

 

– Blistering attacks –

 

Palmer’s Twitter and Facebook accounts and website of his dental practice — River Bluff Dental in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota — were shut down Tuesday after being flooded with blistering attacks.

A makeshift memorial began forming outside his shuttered office as people outraged by the story dropped off stuffed animals and flowers, according to images from local media.

The online outrage was intense with the hashtag #CecilTheLion trending, while an online petition demanding justice for Cecil had drawn 95,000 signatures.

Comedian Ricky Gervais, who has targeted trophy hunters with his barbs in the past, was among those who expressed their disgust.

“It’s not for food. It’s not the shooting, or tin cans would do. It must just be the thrill of killing. Mental,” Gervais tweeted.

Some hunting of lions and other large animals is legal in countries such as South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, where permits are issued allowing hunters to kill certain beasts that are beyond breeding age.

It is outlawed, however, in Zimbabwe’s national parks.

“We use hunting as a conservation tool,” Fundira said. “Hunting is only based on animals which have been vigorously checked in terms of qualifying.”

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said Cecil had cubs, which were likely to be killed by the lion that took over in the group’s hierarchy.

In May, a Texan hunter shot an elderly black rhinoceros in Namibia after buying a government-issued licence for $350,000.

 

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