World

Zimbabweans involved in hunt of Cecil the lion appear in court

A hunting guide and a farm owner appeared in court Wednesday on allegations they helped an American dentist kill a protected lion named Cecil, and the head of Zimbabwe's safari association said the big cat was unethically lured into the kill zone and denied "a chance of a fair chase."

Using bait to lure lion deemed unethical by Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe

Cecil was a famous feature at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. He was known for his distinctive black mane, and was being followed by researchers as part of a study. (EPA)

A hunting guide and a farm owner appeared in court Wednesday on allegations they helped an American dentist kill a protected lion named Cecil, and the head of Zimbabwe's safari association said the big cat was unethically lured into the kill zone and denied "a chance of a fair chase."

The Zimbabwean men were accused of aiding Walter James Palmer, who reportedly paid $50,000 US to track and kill the black-maned lion. Zimbabwe police have said they are looking for Palmer, whose exact whereabouts are unknown.

During the nighttime hunt, the men tied a dead animal to their car to draw the lion out of a national park, said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.

The American is believed to have shot the lion with a crossbow, injuring the cat. The wounded lion was tracked for 40 hours before Palmer fatally shot it with a gun, Rodrigues said.

A professional hunter named Theo Bronkhorst was accused of failing to "prevent an unlawful hunt." Court documents say Bronkhorst was supervising while Palmer shot the animal.

Bronkhorst was released on $1,000 bail after appearing at the Hwange magistrate's court, about 700 kilometres west of the capital of Harare, according to his defence lawyer, Givemore Muvhiringi.

If convicted, Bronkhorst faces up to 15 years in prison.

Farm owner released

A second man, farm owner Honest Trymore Ndlovu, also appeared in court but was not charged and was released from custody, his lawyer Tonderai Makuku said.

The court documents made no mention of Palmer as a suspect.

Using bait to lure the lion is deemed unethical by the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, of which Bronkhorst is a member. The association has since revoked his licence.

Honest Ndlovu, right, and hunter Theo Bronkhorst appeared in a Hwange magistrates court. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

"Ethics are certainly against baiting. Animals are supposed to be given a chance of a fair chase," Emmanuel Fundira, the association's president, said Tuesday. "In fact, it was not a hunt at all. The animal was baited, and that is not how we do it. It is not allowed."

Palmer, a dentist living in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, said in a statement that he was unaware the lion was protected and relied on his guides to ensure a legal hunt.

"I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favourite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt," Palmer said in statement through a public relations firm.

The lion's death stirred outrage worldwide.

If the animal was lured out of the park with food to be shot on private property, Palmer "needs to be extradited, charged and, preferably, hanged," People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said Wednesday in a statement. The statement emailed to The Associated Press came from Ingrid Newkirk, the group's president.

Social media sites were filled with condemnation of the killing just outside Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. On Twitter, the hashtag cecilthelion was in wide use.

Palmer's location unknown

Palmer remained secluded Wednesday in the face of protests at his clinic and the online furor.

The dentist, who has not appeared in public since being identified Tuesday as a party to the lion's death, advised patients of the situation in a note, telling them they would be referred to other dentists for the time being.

"I don't often talk about hunting with my patients because it can be a divisive and emotionally charged topic. I understand and respect that not everyone shares the same views on hunting," the letter obtained by the local Fox TV affiliate said.

Palmer has several hunts on record with the Minnesota-based Pope and Young Club, where archers register big game taken in North America, said Glenn Hisey, the club's director of records. Hisey said he didn't have immediate access to records showing the types and number of animals killed by Palmer, but noted that club records involve legal hunts "taken under our rules of fair chase."

Walter James Palmer, a dentist from the U.S., has said that he killed the famous lion, but that he thought he was taking part in a legal hunt. Palmer's dental practice isn't open and it's not clear where the 55-year-old hunter is. (Bryan Orford/YouTube/Trophy Hunt America)

According to U.S. court records, Palmer pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin. Palmer had a permit to hunt but shot the animal outside the authorized zone in 2006, then tried to pass it off as being killed elsewhere, according to court documents. He was place on probation for one year and fined nearly $3,000.

Hisey said he alerted the group's board that Palmer's ethics were being called into question. He said Palmer's domestic records could be jeopardized if he's found to have done something illegal abroad.

Cecil was being studied by an Oxford University research program. He is believed to have been killed July 1 and his carcass discovered days later by trackers.

TV host Jimmy Kimmel paid emotional tribute to Cecil on Tuesday on his late-night show. After recounting details of the lion's death, Kimmel invited viewers to contribute to a wildlife fund.

"If you want to make this into a positive" — then, choking up, he halted for a moment to regain his composure — "make a donation and support them. At the very least, maybe we can show the world that not all Americans are like this jack-hole here."

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