US dentist accused of poaching Cecil the lion

The much-loved Zimbabwean lion, Cecil, which was allegedly killed by an American tourist on a hunt using a bow and arrow. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
The much-loved Zimbabwean lion, Cecil, which was allegedly killed by an American tourist on a hunt using a bow and arrow. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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A US dentist with a previous hunting conviction shot Zimbabwe’s best-loved lion Cecil with a compound bow three weeks ago after luring him out of a national park with a dead animal tied to a safari vehicle, conservationists claimed yesterday.

Two men will appear in court in the resort town of Victoria Falls today in connection with Cecil’s death.

But father of two Walter Palmer, a bow hunting fanatic from Minnesota who’s accused of paying 32,000 to illegally hunt the magnificent black-maned lion, will not be one of them.

Thirteen-year-old Cecil was baited out of Hwange National Park -- where hunting is banned -- shot with an arrow and then tracked for 40 hours before being killed with a rifle, Johnny Rodrigues of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF) said. “This is inhumane and it should be banned,” Rodrigues told The Scotsman.

The killing of Cecil in the first week of July has provoked outrage and flipped the lid on some of the murky business surrounding trophy hunting in Zimbabwe

Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi yesterday described the killing as a “heinous crime”.

One of those in court this morning will be Zimbabwean professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst, who arranged what now appears to have been billed as a “leopard hunt” on the edges of Hwange National Park in the west of Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority said yesterday that Bronkhorst would be charged with “illegally hunting”. His professional hunting licence has already been suspended.

Cecil’s severed head, originally reported as missing, has been found and will be the chief court exhibit, insiders confirm.

Bronkhorst’s co-accused is Zimbabwean farm owner Honest Ndlovu, on whose land Cecil was killed. The state parks authority said that Ndlovu did not have permission to sell a lion hunt. The pair could face up to 10 years in jail.

Palmer, whose name and passport number was published by the ZCTF, is no longer believed to be in Zimbabwe. Press reports from Wisconsin in the US show that Palmer pleaded guilty in 2008 to mis-stating the location of a black bear hunt. He killed the animal 40 miles outside of the area he was permitted to hunt in.

Palmer’s dental surgery’s Facebook page was flooded with angry comments yesterday.

Beloved of tourists and wildlife photographers, 13-year-old Cecil was so tame he used to lie in the path of safari vehicles, insisting they move before he did. Visitors would travel for miles to get a snap of him. He was being followed as part of a research project run by Oxford University and was wearing a collar when he was shot. Conservationist Rodrigues said: “They tried to destroy the collar but failed.” Researchers say Cecil is only one of a number of collared lions from Hwange killed by hunters in recent years. Cecil’s cubs are now almost certain to be killed as the next male takes over the pride, according to Rodrigues.

President Robert Mugabe’s government, more used to fending off criticism for its export of baby elephants to China, has been slow to react to Cecil’s killing. But in the first official reaction from the authorities, Minister Mzembi told the Herald:

“Animal rights are at the centre of our conservation model and clearly shooting or eliminating a tourism pet, which is what Cecil had graduated into, cannot go unpunished.”

Cecil’s death has reignited calls for lion hunting to be banned in Zimbabwe. Those who oppose sport hunting say the bulk of the vast amounts paid by foreign clients is never brought into Zimbabwe.

Though he’s now being described as Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, many locals are bemused by Cecil’s story. “How many locals have met Cecil whilst he was still alive?” local photographer Steven Chikosi tweeted. Zimbabwe’s exorbitantly-priced tourism facilities mean that very few are able to holiday at home and many locals have never been to Hwange.