Sunday 25 February 2018

US dentist who hunted and killed Zimbabwe's beloved lion Cecil forced into hiding

Cecil the Lion in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe. shot dead by US dentist Walter James Palmer.
Cecil the Lion in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe. shot dead by US dentist Walter James Palmer.
US dentist Walter Palmer is pictured with Cecil

Harriet Alexander in Johannesburg

The American hunter unmasked yesterday as the killer of Zimbabwean lion Cecil has gone into hiding as the angry response spread across the internet and to Walter Palmer's Minnesota hometown.

On the practice door of Mr Palmer's dental surgery in Bloomington, Minnesota, a protester has fixed a flysheet with a picture of a beaming Mr Palmer and another hunter behind the body of a dead lion.

"Dr Walt Palmer - doesn't he look proud of himself?", the flysheet reads, before describing the demise of "beloved Cecil".

Last night, Mr Palmer was not to be found, either at the surgery or his five-bedroom, 4,007-square-feet home, estimated as being worth just over $1m (€907,000) in a leafy Minneapolis suburb.

Meanwhile, a professional hunter who assisted Mr Palmer in the killing of Cecil has been granted bail by a judge in Zimbabwe.

Cecil, who was shot dead on July 1, was a protected lion from the Hwange National Park and so should not have been killed. According to reports, Mr Palmer paid $50,000 to shoot a lion.

Yesterday, Theo Bronkhorst, the Zimbabwean founder of Bushman Safaris, was charged with conducting an illegal hunt, but was not asked to plead.

Magistrate Lindiwe Maphosa granted him $1,000 bail and ordered him to report to police in the second city of Bulawayo on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and to surrender his passport.

Mr Bronkhorst, who founded Bushman Safaris in 1992, appeared at Hwange magistrates' court alongside Honest Ndlovu, who occupies the land on which Cecil was shot. Mr Ndlovu is being charged separately and matters are still in progress. His charge will be that he allowed an illegal hunt on his land.

Lion hunting using firearms is legal in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania - and bow and arrow hunting is legal in all the same countries but Tanzania.

But the problem lies in the fact that Cecil was shot in an area not assigned a "lion quota".

Lion Aid, a charity, said that the bait was reportedly set for a leopard, and then Cecil came along. When Mr Palmer moved to shoot the lion, the hunt became illegal. If the men are convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison.

Mr Palmer, who is not facing any charges, is said to have been "furious" when he discovered the murky nature of Cecil's death.

"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. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt," he said.

"I have not been contacted by authorities in Zimbabwe or in the US about this situation, but will assist them in any inquiries they may have. Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practise responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion."

Meanwhile, anger was mounting around the world last night at the killing of Cecil as Roger Moore and other celebrities joined tens of thousands who condemned the act on social media.

The former James Bond actor, echoed the demands from many when he called for Mr Palmer to be punished. "Hunting is a coward's pastime, and no one has demonstrated that more clearly than Walter Palmer," the actor said.

A petition calling for Mr Palmer to be extradited had last night reached 30,000 signatures. The dentist said he would assist the authorities, but had not been contacted by either Zimbabwean or American police. Legal experts said there was no chance of his extradition, despite a treaty being in place.

"For an offence to be extraditable, there must be 'dual criminality' - that is, the conduct alleged must be a crime in both countries," said Professor Fred Morrison from the University of Minnesota.

"In addition, it must be punishable by a year or more in jail in both countries. While poaching is a serious crime in Africa, it is a less serious issue in the US."

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