Accused lion hunter released on bail in Zimbabwe | Africa | DW | 29.07.2015
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Africa

Accused lion hunter released on bail in Zimbabwe

The suspect is charged with failure to prevent the killing of Cecil, Zimbabwe's most famous lion who lived in a national park. It is not known whether the American hunter who shot the lion will also be charged.

Hunter Theo Bronkhurts waits outside the court

Theo Bronkhurst waiting to appear in court

Social media exploded over the news that a US dentist named Walter James Palmer paid $50,000 (45,000 euros) to track and shoot the lion. It is alleged that along with his guide and the landowner, Palmer lured the lion out of the national park using bait. Palmer shot Cecil with a bow and arrow. The trio then tracked the injured animal for 40 hours before shooting him with a rifle and then skinning and beheading him.

Theo Bronkhorst, a professional hunter, and Honest Ndlovu, a private game park owner, were escorted into the courthouse in Hwange, 800 kilometers (500 miles) west of Harare, by plain-clothes detectives.

Defense lawyer Givemore Muvhiringi told news agency AP that the proceedings were delayed by several hours because prosecutors were "making their assessments."

However only Bronkhorst was charged as it is likely that Ndlovu will appear as a state witness. Bronkhorst could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. He was set free after posting bail of $1,000 and is due to return to court for trial on 5 August..

Palmer claims he was unaware of the famous standing of the lion. He also claims that he paid his guides to provide him with a legal hunt. He denies any wrongdoing and has apologized.

"I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt," Palmer said in a statement. "I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt."

A conservation challenge

The 13-year-old lion was a beloved figure on the Zimbabwean plains. Cecil was best known for his large, black mane. He wore a tracking device as he was part of an Oxford University-run research project.

There has been much debate in the conservation community and among governments concerning the benefits or negative effects of big-game hunting. Zimbabwe does allow lion hunting but only if it is properly permitted and outside of protected areas.

A still of Cecil taken from a 2012 video

Conservationists described Cecil as 'confident' and'majestic'

The populations of large African animals like lions, elephants and rhinos have been steadily decreasing due to poaching. Supporters of hunting say that the fees paid go into the local community and toward anti-poaching activities.

Johnny Rodrigues, head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force says President Robert Mugabe has to improve the economy as part of scaling up anti-poaching efforts. He said those living near wildlife may be forced into poaching to earn a living.

"I have not seen where the communities benefit. So there is a problem. It has to be sorted out," said Rodrigues.

While Palmer maintains that he understood at the time that his hunt was legal and that his guides deceived him. Zimbabwean officials are skeptical. In 2006, the Minnesotan dentist allegedly lied to federal authorities regarding the shooting of a black bear outside a designated hunting area.

"We take seriously wildlife conservation. You cannot go there and help yourself to a particular animal. Those animals are preserved for the betterment of the future," said Emmanuel Fundira, head of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe.

#CeciltheLion

Soon after the name of the hunter and the details of the hunt were released, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook were flooded with comments, photos and tweets about the hunt under the hashtag #CeciltheLion. Almost all were furious over the killing of Cecil.

The actor and renowned animal lover Ricky Gervais was one of the first to post about the killing. He 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."

Online users swamped the Facebook page of Palmer's dental business before it was taken down.

In Zimbabwean social media circles, users were equally angered by the killing. One user under the Twitter handle @zimbandrew wrote: "I do hope the passion for #CecilTheLion never dies... We need to channel this passion against all poaching... No trade in animal parts."

Others seem to question why the death of one lion gets such attention while the everyday struggles of ordinary Zimbabweans do not.

@eniablessed wrote that "when thousands of zimbos suffer in silence, the world is silent, but when a lion is killed....whoaaa....."

Columbus Mavhunga contributed to this article

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