Reports that a Minnesota dentist paid $50,000 to shoot, stalk, kill, and skin a beloved African lion have led to renewed calls for a ban on the import of lions killed in trophy hunting.
The Telegraph first identified the hunter as Walter James Palmer on Tuesday. Palmer is reported to have killed Cecil—one of the continent's most famous lions —while on a Bushman Safaris-run trip with professional hunters in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. The park is a "free roam" zone under Zimbabwean law, which means that hunting isn't allowed in the park and killing Cecil inside of it would have been illegal.
"Cecil's tragic and meaningless destruction may just be the catalyst we need to take action to end lion trophy hunting and, instead, devote all our energies to conserving a species which, perhaps more than any other, represents the wild soul of Africa."
—Will Travers, Born Free Foundation
But Palmer and his guides seem to have found a way around this law. They allegedly lured the lion out of the protected zone at night, shot him with a bow and arrow, and then followed him for 40 hours before shooting him in the head with a rifle. At that point, they attempted to remove Cecil's tracking collar, which was being monitored by an Oxford University research project. Once he was dead, the hunters beheaded and skinned Cecil, the photogenic 13-year-old male who was known for his striking dark mane. His corpse was abandoned in the sun.
Questions remain as to whether Palmer's killing of Cecil was legal. As Vox explains, the Zimbabwean government says Palmer didn't have the proper permits in place to hunt Cecil. Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba has confirmed that the two guides have been arrested on poaching charges, and that Palmer is now wanted as well.
Several news outlets are reporting that this incident is not the first time Palmer—whom the Daily Beast referred to as an "animal serial killer"—has been in trouble for his hunting practices.
For his part, Palmer maintains his innocence. "I hired several professional guides and they secured all proper permits," he said in a statement to the Minnesota Star-Tribune. "To my knowledge, everything about this trip was legal and properly handled and conducted. 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."
That has done little to quell the international anger directed toward Palmer. The Star-Tribune reports that as the Telegraph's report and subsequent news coverage spread on the Internet, commenters took to the Facebook page of Palmer's River Bluff Dental practice "with a vengeance."
Chelsea Hassler, outreach director with the Twin Cities-based Animal Rights Coalition, said her group and "many outraged citizens" intend to protest outside Palmer's office on Wednesday afternoon.
Beyond outrage, Cecil's death stirs questions about the economics and ethics of big-game hunting and wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
Some argue that hunting brings conservation funding into a country through hunting permits—indeed, in defending Palmer to the Seattle Times on Tuesday, a longtime acquaintance (and fellow game hunter) said: "The trophy hunter really should become a saint amongst hunters" for this reason.
However, a 2013 study from Born Free USA and other animal welfare groups showed that the trophy hunting industry makes a minimal contribution to national incomes.
"The suggestion that trophy hunting plays a significant role in African economic development is misguided," said economist Rod Campbell, lead author of the study, at the time. "Revenues constitute only a fraction of a percent of GDP and almost none of that ever reaches rural communities."
Meanwhile, according to Jeffrey Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, "killing a pride’s dominant male like Cecil can have a ripple effect. Because he no longer can protect his pride from rogue lions, other males, young cubs and females in that now unstable pride are placed in danger—meaning, in all reality, these hunters’ actions may lead to the deaths of many African lions, which are a species threatened with extinction."
Which is why Born Free USA and other groups are urging concerned citizens to call on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a final rule listing the lion as "Threatened" and thereby stopping all trophy imports.
Born Free Foundation president Will Travers declared on Tuesday: "Cecil's tragic and meaningless destruction may just be the catalyst we need to take action to end lion trophy hunting and, instead, devote all our energies to conserving a species which, perhaps more than any other, represents the wild soul of Africa."