A SOMBRE-looking Theo Bronkhorst, the Zimbabwean professional hunter behind the killing of Cecil the lion, has appeared in court in western Zimbabwe on charges of illegal hunting and was granted bail.
Bronkhorst, the founder of Bushman Safaris, appeared before magistrate Lindiwe Maphosa in Hwange, about 380 miles from the capital Harare. He was not asked to plead, but was ordered to pay the equivalent of £640 bail, to surrender his passport and to report to police in Bulawayo three times a week. He is due back in court on 5 August.
Zimbabwean landowner Honest Ndlovu, on whose farm Cecil was killed by American dentist Walter Palmer, appeared in court charged with allowing an illegal hunt on his land.
Cecil was lured from the state-owned Hwange National Park – where hunting is banned – on to Antoinette farm in the first week of July.
The 13-year-old lion was hunted with a compound bow, injured, tracked for 40 hours, shot with a gun and then beheaded.
His killers might have got away with it, were it not for the fact that Cecil was wearing a collar with GPS tracking.
Insiders say unscrupulous hunters and safari operators in Zimbabwe sometimes engage in “quota transfer”, an illegal practice whereby permission is given to hunt a particular animal or animals on a specific piece of land but the animal is killed elsewhere and its location mis-stated to the authorities.
Johnny Rodrigues of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said he did not believe there was a quota for lions to be hunted where Cecil was killed.
Sources have told The Scotsman that a lion quota may have been issued for the Umguza area which, like Hwange, is in Matabeleland North province.
Yesterday it emerged that Bronkhorst and Ndlovu’s court appearance had been brought forward by a week in a reflection of just how seriously the authorities are taking the matter -- even if many Zimbabweans had never heard of Cecil before this week.
Professional hunters are rarely prosecuted in Zimbabwe. But there is growing pressure for Bronkhorst to be treated as a poacher.
“I think they want to make a showcase of this,” said a conservationist from the Victoria Falls area.
“Hwange has got good magistrates. We’ve had elephant poachers in front of them and they’ve gone in for nine, ten years. They seem to take a strong line on wildlife crimes there.”
Three poachers convicted of killing elephants with cyanide in Hwange National Park were each sentenced to at least 15 years in jail in 2013.
Calls are mounting for Palmer, 55, who paid the equivalent of £32,000 to kill Cecil, to be sent to Zimbabwe to face justice.
“He needs to be extradited, charged, and, preferably, hanged,” Ingrid Newkirk, president of animal rights group Peta US, said in a statement.
Yesterday it emerged that the veteran big game hunter had gone into hiding and had to temporarily close his practice in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Cecil was being tracked by Oxford University researchers.