Zimbabwean authorities say a U.S. dentist from the northern state of Minnesota was responsible for slaying one of the country's most beloved lions.
The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said Walter Palmer of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, paid at least $50,000 to track and kill Cecil the lion in early July.
But Palmer told the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Tuesday that he “had no idea the lion I took was a known, local favorite” and that he might have been misled by hunting guides.
“I hired several professional guides, and they secured all proper permits,” a statement provided by the dentist to the newspaper said. “To my knowledge, everything about this trip was legal and properly handled and conducted.”
Palmer's whereabouts were unknown Tuesday.
Zimbabwean police spokeswoman Charity Charamba told The Associated Press that Palmer faced poaching charges for the kill. "We arrested two people and now we are looking for Palmer in connection with the same case,'' said Charamba.
The two men in custody — a professional hunter and a farm owner — face poaching charges, local authorities said. Killing the lion was illegal because the farm owner did not have a hunting permit.
If convicted, the men face up to 15 years in prison.
Lured and shot
Emmanuel Fundira, president of the conservation group Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe (SOAZ), said Palmer worked with the guides to lure Cecil out of Hwange National Park to an unprotected area by strapping a "dead animal to their vehicle."
Once the animal was off national park land, Palmer allegedly shot Cecil with a crossbow, but did not kill him. The group then tracked the wounded animal for 40 hours, ultimately shooting and killing him.
SOAZ said the hunting party then discovered that Cecil had been fitted with a GPS collar because he was being studied by Hwange Lion Research, funded by Oxford University. They tried to destroy the collar but failed. Cecil was skinned and ultimately beheaded.
This is not the first time Palmer has been in trouble for hunting. According to U.S. court records, Palmer pleaded guilty of making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin in 2006.
Palmer had a permit to hunt but shot the bear outside the authorized zone. He tried to pass the killing off as having been carried out elsewhere, according to court documents. Palmer was given one year of probation and fined nearly $3,000.
Cecil was a popular attraction at the Hwange National Park and had been featured in many photographic shoots. Tourists regularly spotted his characteristic black mane in the park over the last 13 years, said Lion Aid, also a conservation group.
Hwange attracted 50,000 visitors last year, about half of them from abroad.
Angry commentators have inundated the Yelp and Google Review pages for Palmer's dental practice, and he has been vilified across social media, as #CecilTheLion became a top worldwide trending topic Tuesday afternoon on Twitter.