Hunter in Zimbabwe court over Cecil the lion's death

Hunter in Zimbabwe court over Cecil the lion's death
PHOTO: Reuters

HWANGE, Zimbabwe - The professional Zimbabwean hunter who led the expedition that killed Cecil the lion arrived in court Wednesday to stand trial on charges of organising an illegal hunt.

Theo Bronkhorst, who runs a safari company, denies any wrongdoing over the hunt in early July when Walter Palmer, a dentist from the American state of Minnesota, paid $55,000 (50,000 euros) to shoot the lion with a bow and arrow.

The hunt provoked worldwide outrage when it emerged that Cecil was a well-known attraction among visitors to the Hwange National Park and was wearing a tracking collar as part of an Oxford University research project.

Bronkhorst, dressed in a checked beige shirt and khaki trousers, waited in the courtroom in Hwange with his lawyer Givemore Muvhiringi, an AFP reporter said.

Palmer, an experienced trophy hunter, became the target of vicious abuse and death threats over the killing, and went into hiding after demonstrations outside his dental practice.

He apologised for killing Cecil, who was renowned for his distinctive black mane, and blamed Bronkhorst for misleading him.

But Bronkhorst said that he was innocent of all charges and had obtained the permits required to kill an elderly lion that was outside the national park boundaries.

"We shot an old male lion that I believed was past his breeding age," Bronkhorst told AFP last week. "I don't think that I've done anything wrong.

"We had done everything above board. I don't foresee any jail sentence." Bronkhorst added that Palmer had stayed in Zimbabwe only three days and that the two had not been in contact since news of Cecil's death triggered global fury.

Hunting crackdown

"Unless the lawyers come to court and make an application to postpone, the trial should start as scheduled," prosecutor Namatirai Ngwasha said Tuesday.

Bronkhorst was granted $1,000 bail last week after being charged with "failing to prevent an illegal hunt".

He was ordered to surrender his passport and report three times a week to his local police station.

Local landowner Honest Ndlovu was also due to be charged, but his case has been postponed.

Zimbabwean authorities have launched a crackdown on illegal hunting.

"It is important to weed out undesirable elements who are tarnishing the image of the industry," Edison Chidziya, head of the Zimbabwe Wildlife Management Authority, said Tuesday.

"We want to investigate the whole industry to make sure this case is isolated." The hunting of lions, leopards and elephants in the area around the national park in western Zimbabwe has been suspended, as has hunting with bows and arrows.

Hunting tourism brings about US$40 million a year into the country.

"It has probably changed my family's life, my business, forever... We have had many, many death threats," Bronkhorst told AFP.

"We grew up hunting, our forefathers grew up hunting, and it is part of our culture.

"If you cannot have a sustainable offtake of wildlife, you're not going to have wildlife." The United States has yet to respond to Zimbabwe's request for Palmer to be extradited to face charges.

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