Two Zimbabweans arrested for illegally hunting a protected lion named Cecil have appeared in court as anger at the kill by an American dentist escalated.
The two men – a professional hunter and a farm owner – are accused of helping Walter James Palmer hunt the lion.
Zimbabwean police said they are looking for Mr Palmer, who reportedly paid $50,000 to track and kill the animal.
Mr Palmer, a dentist living in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, said in a statement that he was unaware the lion was protected, relying on local guides to ensure a legal hunt.
“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. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt,” Mr Palmer said in statement through a public relations firm.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals group reacted with fury and said in a statement: “If, as has been reported, this dentist and his guides lured Cecil out of the park with food so as to shoot him on private property ... he needs to be extradited, charged, and, preferably, hanged.”
Social media on the internet – for example on Twitter under #cecilthelion – was also filled with condemnation of the killing of the black-maned lion just outside Hwange national park in Zimbabwe.
The two Zimbabwean men appeared at Hwange magistrates’ court, about 435 miles west of the capital Harare, to face poaching charges.
Defence lawyer Givemore Muvhiringi says the proceedings were delayed by several hours because prosecutors are “making their assessments”. If convicted, the men face up to 15 years in prison in Zimbabwe.
The professional hunter who allegedly acted as Mr Palmer’s guide has been stripped of his licence while he faces criminal charges, the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority and the Safari Operators Association said in a joint statement.
The farm owner also facing criminal charges did not have a hunting permit, the joint statement said.
According to US court records, Mr Palmer pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the US Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin.
Mr Palmer had a permit to hunt but shot the animal outside the authorised zone in 2006, then tried to pass it off as being killed elsewhere, according to court documents. He was given one-year probation and fined nearly $3,000.
Cecil was being studied by an Oxford University research programme.