HARARE (Reuters) - Wildlife officials on Tuesday accused an American tourist of killing Cecil, one of the oldest and most famous lions in Zimbabwe, without a permit after paying $50,000 to two people who lured the beast to its death.
The lion was lured out of Hwange National Park using a bait and was shot by the Walter James Palmer with a crossbow, Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), told reporters.
Rodrigues said Palmer paid Zimbabwean hunter Theo Bronkhorst and Honest Ndlovu, a private game park owner, to lure the 13-year-old Cecil. Bronkhorst and Ndlovu will face poaching charges on Wednesday in Hwange for the killing of the lion on July 1, Rodriguez said.
Palmer -- who U.S. media reports said was a dentist from Minnesota -- was not immediately available for comment.
A spokesman for Palmer told the Guardian that the hunter believed he may have shot the lion.
"As far as I understand, Walter believes that he might have shot that lion that has been referred to as Cecil," a spokesman for Palmer said.
"What he’ll tell you is that he had the proper legal permits and he had hired several professional guides, so he's not denying that he may be the person who shot this lion. He is a big-game hunter; he hunts the world over."
Palmer's whereabouts were not immediately known but Cecil's head and skin were recovered and would be used as evidence in court, Rodrigues said.
Cecil was a popular attraction at the Hwange National Park and had featured in many photographic shoots.
Lions are not protected species in Zimbabwe. If convicted, the two men would be required to pay $20,000 in compensation but the court may impose an additional jail term.
Investigations show the killing of Cecil was illegal because the land owner was not allocated a lion on his hunting quota for 2015, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) and ZCTF said in a statement.
"Therefore, all persons implicated in this case are due to appear in court facing poaching charges," the conservationists said.
Zimbabwe issues annual permits allowing foreign hunters to kill wildlife like the elephant, buffalo and lion, saying this allows it to raise money for conservation.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe, Editing by James Macharia and Angus MacSwan)