AN AMERICAN dentist is wanted by police after a well-known protected lion was shot dead.
Walter James Palmer reportedly paid 50,000 US dollars (£32,000) to shoot the lion in Zimbabwe earlier this month.
The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said Mr Palmer and two other men, a professional hunter and a farm owner, tied a dead animal to a car to lure Cecil the lion out of a national park before shooting him with a crossbow.
Task Force chairman Johnny Rodrigues said the wounded lion was found 40 hours later and was shot dead with a gun.
The lion, which was being studied by researchers at Oxford University, was then skinned and beheaded and attempts were made to destroy its collar which was fitted with a tracking device.
Mr Rodrigues said trackers found the carcass days later.
In a statement, Mr Palmer, from Minnesota, said: “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.”
He maintained that he had believed the hunt had been legal.
Two Zimbabwean men have been arrested on suspicion of poaching and could face up to 15 years in prison, the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority and the Safari Operators Association said in a joint statement.
Killing the lion was illegal because the farm owner did not have a hunting permit, it said, although the men maintain they did not know the lion was protected.
Mr Rodrigues said: “The saddest part of all is that now that Cecil is dead, the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho, will most likely kill all Cecil’s cubs.”
Professor David Macdonald, who founded the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University, agreed Cecil’s death would lead to a “cascade” of other deaths.
“The death of one lion is not just the death of one lion - it is a cascade. It has consequences,” he said. “Cecil was the only male so it is highly likely that the incoming males will kill his offspring.”
The hunters’ actions have been widely condemned on social media.
Comedian Ricky Gervais, a prominent animal rights campaigner, wrote: “It’s not for food. It’s not the shooting, or tin cans would do. It must just be the thrill of killing. Mental.”
BBC Essex broadcaster James Whale tweeted: “What has happened to Cecil the lion is incomprehensible to anyone with a brain.”
MEP Catherine Bearder wrote: “Shooting of Cecil the lion was senseless and cruel. Both US and EU must act to ban trophy hunting.”
Another user, Spencer Tear, said: “50K paid to kill Cecil the lion. How sad and low can one stoop.”
Prof Macdonald had been observing Cecil just a few months ago as part of the research by Oxford University which aims to solve problems with wildlife conservation and environment management in order to influence policy formation.
There are reported to be 30,000 lions left across the whole African continent, but the professor warned that the figure, despite being “startlingly low”, was likely to be an overestimate.
He added that he hoped there would be a “silver-lining” to Cecil’s death with an increase in support for his research.