HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwean police said Tuesday they are searching for an American who allegedly shot a well-known, protected lion known as Cecil with a crossbow in a killing that has outraged conservationists and others.
Authorities on Tuesday said two Zimbabwean men will appear in court for allegedly helping lure the lion outside of its protected area to kill it. The American faces poaching charges, according to police spokeswoman Charity Charamba.
The American allegedly paid $50,000 to hunt the lion, Zimbabwean conservationists said, though the hunter and is local partners maintain they didn't know the lion they killed was protected.
Walter James Palmer was identified on Tuesday by both the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force and the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe as the American hunter, a name that police then confirmed.
"We arrested two people and now we are looking for Palmer in connection with the same case," Charamba said.
Emmanuel Fundira, the president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, said at a news conference that Palmer is from Minnesota and his current whereabouts were unknown.
Palmer issued a statement saying he was unaware that the lion was so well known and part of a study.
"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," he said, maintaining that to his knowledge, everything about the hunt had been legal.
Attempts to reach Palmer, 55, at his two listed home numbers and his office by phone and in person were unsuccessful.
Palmer, an avid hunter, 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 outside of the authorized hunting zone, according to court documents.
The two arrested Zimbabwean men — a professional hunter and a farm owner — face poaching charges, 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, the joint statement said. The lion was skinned and beheaded. The hunters tried to destroy the lion's collar, fitted with a tracking device, but failed, the statement said.
If convicted, the men face up to 15 years in prison.
The lion is believed to have been killed on July 1 in western Zimbabwe's wildlife-rich Hwange region, its carcass discovered days later by trackers, the statement said.
The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said in a statement that an American paid the $50,000 for the hunt. During a nighttime hunt, the men tied a dead animal to their car to lure the lion out of a national park, said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. The American is believed to have shot it with a crossbow, injuring the animal. The wounded lion was found 40 hours later, and shot dead with a gun, Rodrigues said in the statement.
"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," said Rodrigues.
The Zimbabwean hunter accused in the case claimed that Cecil was not specifically targeted, and the group only learning after the fact that they had killed a well-known lion, according to the Safari Operators Association.
Cecil, recognizable by his black mane, was being studied by an Oxford University research program, the conservation group said.
Tourists regularly spotted his characteristic mane in the park over the last 13 years, said Lion Aid, also a conservation group.